Normative Narratives


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The First Casualty of “America First”: The Kurds

A member of Iraqi federal forces holds the Kurdish flag upside down in Kirkuk, Iraq on October 16, 2017.REUTERS/Stringer

Remember when the fate of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was uncertain, the country mired in a horrific Civil War with no end in sight while the IS was rapidly gaining ground? Remember when Iraqi forces fled IS advances, abandoning Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city? You should remember both, they were only a few years ago…

You should also remember how, in both cases, the Kurds proved themselves to be capable, brave fighters. They were and continue to be a stable faction in a volatile region–native boots on the ground that the U.S. can rely on. But facts on the ground can change quickly, especially when external powers intervene decisively in a conflict.

Seemingly a victory, a referendum for Kurdish independence quickly soured when the Iraqi military retook the Kirkuik oil field (backed by Iranian proxies). Yes, the same Iraqi military that melted away in the face of IS fighters and needed the Kurds to help clean up their mess, turned their guns on the Kurds for exercising self-determination.

In Syria, Russia and Iran helped Assad turn the tide of the Civil War decisively in his favor. Now that he appears to be firmly in power, Assad has set his sights on retaking Syria’s Kurdish regions.

In addition to being capable fighters, the Kurds have a penchant for democratic governance and women’s rights. In terms of a Middle Eastern partner, they are a dream match for the U.S.. We always lament the fact that we do have not enough true, democratic allies in the region, but I fear we are now abandoning one because supporting them doesn’t fits into Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.

In Iraq, we stood by as the Iraqi military and Iranian militias ripped away the would-be heart of any future Kurdish state. But the U.S. has invested a ton of resources into maintaining a unified Iraq; while I cannot agree with America’s inaction here, it is somewhat understandable.

What about in Syria, where this is not the case? Here too we are failing to protect our ally. In order to appease Turkish President Erdogan, President Trump has said he will stop arming the Kurds.

This is the problem with Trump’s “America First” foreign policy–it is inherently short-sighted. Is it in America’s short term interests to defend the Kurds now? Probably not–we used em’ and now we could lose em’. Turkey is stronger than the Kurds; it is easier to give in to our more powerful “ally’s” wishes here regardless what is “right”, even as President Erdogan continues to turn Turkey into an authoritarian, non-secular country.

Turkey does have some legitimate concerns about its territorial integrity when it comes to Kurdish statehood. Despite the erosion of Turkish democracy, Turkey is far from a “failed state” (as Iraq was and Syria still is), making the case for appropriating Turkish land for a Kurdish state much weaker. Mechanisms could be set up to protect Turkish sovereignty and borders alongside the introduction of a Kurdish state, which I have outlined in a previous blog post.

More pointedly, if Turkey didn’t want the Kurds to have a much stronger claim to their own state, it should have acted more decisively in the Syrian Civil War and in the fight against the IS. Instead Turkey, like the rest of the global and regional powers, let the Kurds do the heavy lifting. Now, understandably, the Kurds want their just deserts.

Would continuing to decisively back the Kurds upset some powerful players? Yes. What meaningful change does not? What happened to Trump’s supposed bravado? Risk aversion will only reaffirm to the status-quo in the Middle East–picking the least bad autocrats to be our allies, while the region remains mired in conflict and stalled development. Building true democratic allies in the Middle East will not be quick or easy, but it is important work nonetheless.

Now to be fair, in international affairs long-term goals need to be weighed against short-term security concerns, and shortsightedness is not exclusive to the Trump administration. Obama did not do enough to protect a budding democracy in Egypt, and was too risk averse in Syria, allowing Russia to eventually come in and dictate the result of the conflict. There is, however, a sense that the Trump administration will not even really weigh these options when making tough decisions. After all, Trump has shown at best a lukewarm appreciation for democratic institutions at home (attacks on the judiciary and independent media) and has praised authoritarian leaders abroad. It is, therefore, no stretch of the imagination to think that he will, by default, opt for the easy solution without even considering the long-term benefits of promoting democratic governance.

In this case, even considering the potential negatives, abandoning the Kurds would be one of America’s most short-sighted decisions the Middle East since we sleepwalked into the Iraq War in the first place. Based on what we know about Trump and his “America First” foreign policy, it is not likely to be the last short-sighted decision either.

Update (1/27): I knew Trump wouldn’t do the right thing…The U.S. has agreed to stop arming the Syrian Kurds to appease Turkey’s Erdogan. Erdogan, sensing weakness in Trump’s resolve, is trying to further dictate terms to the U.S., demanding we remove all of our troops from Manbij.

It would be incredible to imagine the U.S. allowing another country to dictate where we keep our troops, particularly since Manbij is part of Syria, not Turkey. With that being said, nothing would surprise me anymore; all bets are off with the Trump administration.

Bottom line–Turkey and Erdogan have no right to tell us who we can ally with, and where to position our troops.

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Turkey, Kurdistan and ISIL: The Case for Partitioning Iraq and Syria

kurdmap

The fight against ISIL has taken another complicating turn, with direct fighting between two of America’s most important regional allies, Turkey and the Syrian Kurds (YPG).

There is, however, something that can be done to address each sides concerns and uphold their interests. That something is abandoning the supremacy of Syrian and Iraqi territorial integrity, and carving a Kurdistan out of parts of Syria and Iraq.

This step, accompanied by the right conditions, can help resolve the longstanding feud between the Turks and Kurds and get the fights against ISIL and Assad back on track.

Take Land From Those Who Have Proven They Cannot Govern It

The Syrian and Iraqi governments have both lost their ability to govern the entirety of their respective country’s. These are not my opinions, they are the facts on the ground.

In Syria, Assad has committed numerous war crimes against his people in an attempt to squash a popular uprising against him. Even these violations of human decency and humanitarian law alone would not have kept him in power, as he has relied heavily on support from Russia and Iran.

The Iraqi military melted away in the face of ISIL advances in 2014, and the government has proven unable to address the underlying social and sectarian grievances that enabled this advance. Iraq as we know it would no longer exist without the support of America and its allies.

This is not to say there should be no Syria or no Iraq, but neither country’s government has done anything in recent years to suggest the idea of partitioning should not at least be on the table. The other countries with major Kurdish populations, Turkey and Iran, are still functioning states despite their varying degrees of poor governance.

The argument for creating Kurdistan out of parts of Iraq and Syria is strengthened when considering the strong arguments for Kurdish statehood. These arguments include justice for a large, stateless population, and a reward for bravery in fighting ISIL on the world’s behalf.

By giving the Kurds what they want in Syria and Iraq, it should ease pressure to create a Turkish Kurdistan. Some people may argue the opposite, saying such a development would only fuel Kurdish desires to expand into Turkey. But I think the Kurds, realizing how difficult statehood is to sustain in what is currently Iraq and Syria, would be content with the territory they are allotted. Of course my beliefs cannot be taken on faith–certain conditions would need to be put in place to ensure peaceful coexistence between Kurdistan and its neighbors.

Conditionality is Key

Kurdistan’s founding would be based on a set of conditions. Should these conditions fail to hold Kurdistan would loose international backing, which would basically be a death-blow to the newly formed state.

The main condition needed to make this plan work is the explicit understanding that the Kurds would lose support if they expand beyond originally agreed upon borders, unless it is in response to armed conflict initiated by another country or one of it’s proxy’s (such as Hezbollah for Iran). This condition would ensure two things:

  1. The Kurds will not try to expand, as international support would be needed to sustain a new Kurdistan.
  2. Kurdistan will not be invaded by its neighbors (at least by a national army, non-state actors such as ISIL are always wildcards). Both Turkey and Iran share the same primary concern with respect to Kurdish statehood–the effect it would have on their own Kurdish populations and ultimately their territorial integrity. Since invasion would be the one thing that could result in internationally recognized Kurdish expansion, it should act as a strong deterrent against invasion. 

The Benefits of Bold Behavior

People will say such a solution is untenable–Turkey will never “allow it”, Russia will never go for it, and the current American administration is opposed to it. Iran, for its part, will play the spoiler at ever turn.

First of all, America’s stance could well change in the following months with a new administration on its way. But more importantly, it is not the decision of any one country–not the U.S., not Russia, not Turkey or Iran–to “allow” something or not. Issues of global concern, such as armed conflicts and their resulting boundary-less extremism and refugee crises, must be resolved by the international community through the United Nations.

Much could be achieved by taking land from countries that have proven themselves unable to govern it (and were based on arbitrarily drawn borders to begin with) and giving it to the Kurds. It would:

  1. Reward a large, stateless people who have a commitment to democratic principles and have fought bravely against ISIL.
  2. Remove Turkey’s (and to a lesser extent Iran’s) fear of Kurdish expansion into its own territory.
  3. Refocus the fight against ISIL.
  4. Allow Turkish and Kurdish forces to focus their efforts against Assad, altering the calculus of the Syrian Stalemate.

Bold ideas that challenge the current balance of power tend to be met with skepticism and condemnation at first. But the current balance of power in the Middle East empowers extremist organizations and totalitarian governments–it should be challenged.


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Conflict Watch: Current Strategy Can Degrade But Cannot Defeat The Islamic State

Defeating ISIS means Western boots on the ground

UPDATE: With U.S. backed coallitons making advances in Mosul (Iraq) and Raqqa (Syria), and Sirte (Libya), with little news of IS expansion elsewhere, it seems like I may have been wrong on the need for a significant force of Western troops to defeat the IS on the battlefield.

I will leave this post up because it still contains important points about the multifaceted approach needed to defeat the IS ideology. But I believe it is important to admit when you are wrong, and in this case I was.

It is commonly accepted that the fight against the Islamic State (IS) is not solely a military fight.  When the U.S. led coalition outlined its plan for combating the group, three main fronts emerged:

  1. Social Media
  2. Financial
  3. Traditional Warfare

Let’s examine how we are doing on each of these fronts, before considering the larger goal of defeating the IS:

Social Media

It is notoriously difficult to police social media sites. Creating an account is free and monitoring content costs money. When an account is shut down, another one pops-up.

The IS has proven itself adept at using social media as both a recruitment tool and as a platform to amplify its message of terror. Good production quality has had the effect of making the group seem more permanent.

Social media sites, understanding the importance of countering the IS message, are stepping up to the plate (perhaps due to the fact that their own infrastructure is being exploited by these groups). One weak spot until recently was Twitter, but a new report shows the company has started to make a stronger effort:

The Islamic State’s English-language reach on Twitter has stalled in recent months amid a stepped-up crackdown against the extremist group’s army of digital proselytizers, who have long relied on the site to recruit and radicalize new adherents, according to a study being released on Thursday.

Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) has long been criticized by government officials for its relatively lax approach to policing content, even as other Silicon Valley companies like Facebook Inc (FB.O) began to more actively police their platforms.

Under intensified pressure from the White House, presidential candidates and some civil society groups, Twitter announced earlier this month it had shut down more than 125,000 terrorism-related accounts since the middle of 2015, most of them linked to the Islamic State group.

In a blog post, the company said that while it only takes down accounts reported by other users it had increased the size of teams monitoring and responding to reports and has decreased its response time “significantly.”

It does not appear social media will become less popular anytime soon. As long as it is a platform that billions of people use, extremist groups will try to use it to further their causes (especially given the success the IS has had).

Therefore, it is the responsibility of social media companies to do everything they can to fight this misuse–it should be a liability issue, a cost of doing business for a very profitable industry.

Financial

Fighting a war and running a “state” are not cheap–the IS has to at least appear to offer some social services and run certain institutions if it wants to claim it is a “state”.

The IS primary revenue streams are selling oil, taxing the people in areas it subjugates, seizing money from banks in those areas, and (to a lesser extent) other illicit activities (selling stolen antiques, ransoming hostages, drug trade, etc).

Recent drops in oil prices and sanctions have helped squeeze the IS finances. But we cannot and are not relying solely on market forces to disrupt the group’s revenue streams:

Air strikes have reduced Islamic State’s ability to extract, refine and transport oil, a major source of revenue that is already suffering from the fall in world prices. Since October the coalition says it has destroyed at least 10 “cash collection points” estimated to contain hundreds of millions of dollars.

U.S. military officials say reports of Islamic State cutting fighters’ wages by up to half are proof that the coalition is putting pressure on the group.

In January, the coalition said air strikes against Islamic State oil facilities had cut the group’s oil revenues by about 30 percent since October, when U.S. defense officials estimate the group was earning about $47 million per month.

[U.S. Army Colonel Steve] Warren said air strikes against Islamic State’s financial infrastructure were “body blows like a shot to the gut”.

“(It) may not knock you out today but over time begins to weaken your knees and cause you to not be able to function the way you’d like to,” he told reporters last week.

It is true there is a limit to what airstrikes can accomplish against the IS without more soldiers on the ground. But airstrikes can be very effective in disrupting oil production and blowing up known cash storage sites. This is an area where the U.S. could expand its efforts more or less unilaterally.

One way to do this could be reconsidering what an acceptable target is. The U.S. led coalition has made an effort to avoid striking areas with expensive infrastructure, in hopes it can be used if wrestled back from the IS. But, as Ramadi has proven, the IS will rig any areas it loses with explosives before it leaves, so perhaps we should rethink trying to spare infrastructure if it means we can make a more significant dent in the IS finances.

What we cannot do is disregard civilian casualties–“carpet bombing” IS held areas is not a viable option. Not only would such a strategy be morally reprehensible, but it would be counter-productive, reinforcing the IS anti-Western message.

Traditional Warfare

In recent months, the IS has lost significant territory in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, the groups practice of rigging areas it loses with explosives makes it very difficult to turn liberated areas back to “normal” (safe for displaced people to return and lead productive lives).

Furthermore, these gains have not always been made in “sustainable” ways. In Syria, the Assad regime has gained much of the territory the IS has lost (although the Kurds, natural allies to the West, have also gained territory). In Iraq, a Shiite dominated government has made advances with the aid of Iranian fighters, risking further alienating Iraq’s Sunni population (which paved the way for the rise of the IS in the first place).

Further curbing the benefit of IS loses in Iraq and Syria is the group’s expansion into Libya, where it has an estimated 6,000 fighters and rising, exploiting the post-Qaddafi power vacuum. The U.S. led coalition has started an aerial campaign against the IS in Libya, but absent a unified Libyan government, it will be difficult to stop the groups expansion.

In Libya’s incredibly important neighbor Tunisia, the freedoms associated the country’s successful democratic transition have created more space for the IS to operate. Ultimately effective pluralistic democratic governance, which respects the human rights of all people, is the only way to defeat the IS. We must provide Tunisia with all the support it needs, to ensure that democratization does not become a tool the IS uses to its advantage in the short-run. 

Degrading AND Defeating the Islamic State

The good news is we have made progress on each of the three main fronts in the fight against IS (Social Media, Financial, Traditional Warfare). The bad news is that while we are able to degrade the IS, we have done so in a way that ignores the underlying factors that led to the groups rise in the first place.

Let’s not downplay the very real benefits of degrading the IS. It limits the groups ability to spread misery and death. It compromises the groups ability to carry out attacks abroad, and reduces the likelihood it will inspire lone-wolf attackers.

But the fight against the IS is expensive, and the longer the group is allowed to operate, the more it’s assertion that it is a “caliphate” becomes the fact on the ground. Moreover, time gives the IS (which has proven itself quite tactical and resilient) room to metastasize and evolve. Imagine if the group connected its Middle Eastern territory with large swaths of Northern Africa, transforming its ideological link to Boko Haram into an actual military alliance? This may seem like an unlikely scenario, but everything the IS has done up until this point has defied the odds against it. 

To avoid perpetual war we must degrade the IS in a way that also attacks the groups underlying message–that there is no viable alternative for Muslims. On this front, much work remains. Governments in Islamic countries should put aside sectarian divides and treat the fight against the IS as the fight for the soul of Islam that it is. Unfortunately, there is little to suggest this will happen anytime soon, a point recently made by political comedian Bill Maher:

“Why don’t they fight their own battles? Why are Muslim armies so useless against ISIS? ISIS isn’t 10 feet tall. There are 20,000 or 30,000 of them. The countries surrounding ISIS have armies totaling 5 million people. So why do we have to be the ones leading the fight? Or be in the fight at all?”

If you consider the countries bordering Iraq and Syria — Iran (with 563,000 armed forces personnel), Jordan (115,500), Kuwait (22,600), Lebanon (80,000), Saudi Arabia (251,500) and Turkey (612,800) — you get a total of 1.6 million.

Add in Iraq (177,600) and Syria (178,000) themselves and that brings the total to 2 million. That’s less than half of Maher’s figure.

When we heard back from Maher’s spokesman, he said the comedian was also including the armies of Bahrain, Egypt, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

If they (reservists) are included as part of a country’s army, the total for those 13 countries Maher wants to include rises to 4.95 million, as Maher said.

If you don’t include the reservists, the number of troops in the countries cited by the comedian only rises to 3.6 million.

Looking at the largest Muslim players, there is little hope in sight. Turkey is more interested in fighting the Kurds–one of the strongest forces against the IS–than the IS itself. Saudi Arabia and Iran are wrapped up in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and are ideologically opposed to pluralism, democracy, and one another. Egypt under Sisi has become increasingly authoritarian, and as a result finds itself consumed by its own terrorist insurgency. Iraq, as mentioned earlier, is relying too heavily on Iranian forces. In Syria, Assad is hoping that with Russian and Iranian support he can knock out all opposition except the IS, completing his “fighting terrorism” narrative and cementing himself in power as he kills indiscriminately. Jordan seems like a true ally in this fight, but it itself is a monarchy that will not fight for democratic values, and even if it would it cannot be expected to take on this fight alone.

It often seems that the IS is everyone’s second biggest concern. The inability to rally a meaningful Pan-Arabic counter-insurgency against the IS is not ideal (and is actually quite sad), but it is a reality we must acknowledge if we are to put together a coalition that CAN end the group’s reign of terror.

To this end, we need more support from those who do share our values. America cannot be the World’s Police, but the world does need a “police force”. Every country that believes in and has benefited from democratic governance and human rights has a role to play. A global coalition (including ground troops) must include all these parties, and be proportionately funded and manned (meaning the U.S. will still have to play a major leadership role).

To some, such a coalition may seem even less likely than a meaningful Pan-Arabic counter-insurgency. But in my mind, corralling support from interdependent allies that share common values and coordinating financing to fairly and sustainably spreads the cost is more achievable than completely changing the behavior of historically adversarial actors.

We need this global coalition not just to defeat the IS, but to prevent the next Syrian Civil War. Global security is at a crossroads and must evolve–prevention is the cheapest way to maintain a peaceful international order. Having an effective deterrent, alongside promoting democracy and human rights, are indispensable elements of preventing conflict.

Global security is a global public good, absent visionary leadership it will be under-invested in, to the detriment of all.


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Conflict Watch: Kurdish Awakening

Original article:

Turkey and the United States have agreed in general terms on a plan that envisions American warplanes, Syrian insurgents and Turkish forces working together to sweep Islamic State militants from a 60-mile-long strip of northern Syria along the Turkish border, American and Turkish officials say.

The plan would create what officials from both countries are calling an Islamic State-free zone controlled by relatively moderate Syrian insurgents, which the Turks say could also be a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians.

And with only 60 Syrian insurgents having been formally vetted and trained by the United States under a Pentagon program, questions also remain about which Syrian insurgents and how many will be involved in the new operation. A larger number of rebels that American officials deem relatively moderate have been trained in a covert C.I.A. program, but on the battlefield they are often enmeshed or working in concert with more hard-line Islamist insurgents.

Such Syrian Arab insurgents would gain at the expense of the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia known by the initials Y.P.G. that is seeking to take the same territory from the east. While the United States views the group as one of its best partners on the ground, Turkey sees it as a threat; it is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group whose longstanding conflict with Turkey has flared anew in recent days.

The plan does not envision Turkish ground troops entering Syria, although long-range artillery could be used across the border. Turkish ground forces would work on their side of the border to stem the Islamic State’s ability to infiltrate foreign fighters and supplies into Syria.

Awakening–an act or moment of becoming suddenly aware of something. Awakening is the word used to describe the coming together of disparate Sunni tribes and U.S. coalition forces to fight and defeat al Qeada in Iraq–the “Sunni Awakening”.

But there was another “awakening” for these factions–a rude awakening. After doing the heavy lifting on the front lines, these Sunni factions were largely shut-out of the political reunification of Iraq. This was not only unjust, it contributed to the government ineptitude and subsequent power-vacuum that has helped fuel ISIL’s rapid advance across Iraq.

There is a parallel in the fights against ISIS and Assad. This time, the YPG and PKK Kurdish forces are playing the front-line role. Furthermore, the Kurds are far more ideologically aligned with “Western values” than the Sunni Awakening tribes ever were.

My first thought when I heard Turkey was stepping up its fight against ISIS was “about time”. But my enthusiasm was quickly tempered as it became clear that Turkey’s plan is more about fighting the PKK and Turkish politics than the fights against ISIS and Assad. Turkey has the capacity to play a very important role in the fights against Assad and ISIL–this plan does not fulfill that role, and will likely be a net-negative.

The Kurdish pesh merga is a capable military with boots on the ground. Kurdish political leadership is stable and able to balance security and human rights better than any Middle-Eastern government aside from Turkey, Israel, and Tunisia. For a fraction of the financial and moral support sunk into failed ME regimes, Kurdistan could probably now be a fully functioning democratic state by now–I reiterate my support for an independent Kurdistan (although not on Turkish land, but in parts of Syria and Iraq).

For its part, Kurdish political leadership must denounce terrorist attacks against the Turkish government, and distance itself from any radical elements of their parties. Such terrorist attacks are counter productive–they cost the Kurdish statehood movement public support (which is a necessary element for ever becoming an internationally recognized state) and provide Turkey with legitimate reasons to attack Kurdish positions.

The Kurds should also expand their security mandate from solidifying their borders, to actively engaging and degrading ISIL. Backed by coalition airstrikes, boots on the ground are exactly what the fight against ISIL is most lacking. Despite war at it’s front door, Turkey will still not provide ground troops. The Kurds can use this cowardly position to their advantage, juxtaposing the importance of its ground troops against moderately useful Turkish air bases (yes they allow coalition airstrikes to get to positions faster, but without boots on the ground acting in concert with these airstrikes, they are largely ineffective in the fight against ISIL).

If the Turks want to stay out of the fight against ISIL and Assad, that is its prerogative as a sovereign nation. But the U.S. government and NATO should not sanction Turkey using this fight as a cover to degrade the one capable force on the ground fighting both ISIL and Assad. There is no longer a moderate Syrian opposition without the pesh merga. We should heed the lessons of abandoning our front-line allies after they have done “the dirty work” of war. The Kurds will not remain our allies if we abandon them at the first hint of Turkish intervention in the fight against ISIL.

(Update: In a further blow to the moderate Syrian rebels who figure so prominently in Turkey’s plan to fight ISIS and Assad, the leader of the only U.S. vetted force, Nadeem Hassan, was kidnapped along with 6 other rebels. This puts the number of vetted moderate Syrian rebels somewhere between 53 and 47, a reasonably large college lecture class, but not an army capable of fighting ISIS or Assad, regardless of the level of aerial support.)

Assad and ISIL cannot last indefinitely. The question is what morning-after do we want the Kurdish people to awaken to? The one where we stood by them as partners? Or the one where we gave the thumbs up for Turkey to bomb them after months of doing the world’s dirty work fighting ISIL? 

The Obama administration misplayed its hands in Syria and Egypt. Over time, what began as legitimate democratic movements became exactly what the Assad and Sisi wanted–a fight between “strong men” and radical extremists. We cannot let Kurdistan, a budding “Island of Decency” (in the words of Thomas Friedman), become another example of a failed democratic movement in the Middle East.

Some countries are truly not ripe for democratic modernization–it is a process. Failure to realize this can lead to costly wars and greater instability than before said interventions started. This is not to say the international community cannot or should not use it’s intelligence and resources to identify and support the civil elements within a country that are laying the socioeconomic and ideological groundwork for future democratic movements–we should. But we must be realistic when considering our willingness to dedicate resources and our partners capacities when determining whether direct intervention is a pragmatic decision; moving too fast is as bad as not moving at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, failure to support movements that have the capacity to solidify universal aspirations of freedom into sustainable political infrastructure and government administration–such as Kurdish leadership–should not be an option either. Not only does this go against “Western values”, it is geopolitically short-sighted. Furthermore, continuing to make this mistake makes the “democracy cannot exist in the middle east” narrative self-fulfilling.


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Conflict Watch: The Syrian Civil War is Deadlier Than Ever

2014 was the deadliest year of the Syrian Civil War–more than 76,000 people died in 2014, including 17,790 civilians (among them 3,501 children) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The injection of ISIL into the hurting stalemate between Assad and Syrian Rebels has further marginalized any peaceful, pluralistic forces that still exist in Syria.

Paradoxically, it seems that the Syrian Civil war has receded from international headlines. Surely the rise of ISIL has diverted both public attention and resources from removing Assad. The absence of a viable alternative to govern Syria has probably also muted calls to remove Assad. It is worth noting that both these phenomenon–the marginalization of the moderate Syrian opposition and the rise of ISIL–are partially the result of Western inaction in Syria.

By itself, lack of media attention is not such a big deal; highlighting the atrocities of war is a means to an end (pressuring parties to conflict and the international community to defend human rights / uphold humanitarian law), not an end itself. But when lack of media attention coincides with inaction by the international community, there is cause for concern:

Western states are focusing too much on tackling Islamic State and are forgetting the daily suffering of ordinary Syrians in areas of the country where the medical situation has become catastrophic, a group of Syrian doctors said.

The situation has been exacerbated since a U.S-led coalition began bombing areas of Syria controlled by Islamic State, which seized swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq last year.

“Between 30 to 60 people are dying each day since the bombings started,” said Tawfik Shamaa, spokesman for the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations (UOSSM), a non-governmental association that brings together 14 groups.

“There is only talk of extremism and Islamic State, but not the women and children who are killed, the bodies torn apart, the stomachs blown open, which is what doctors are dealing with each day.”

“There are only 30 doctors of all specialities,” he said adding that people were dying of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, scabies and tuberculosis because there were no treatments or vaccines available.

Talks of “humanitarian corridors“, which less than a year ago received unanimous support from most of the UNSC, have foundered. The introduction of a wildcard “spoiler” group like ISIL have made humanitarian corridors (which we’re difficult enough to negotiate between Assad and rebel forces) logistically impossible in areas under their control.

Support for Syrian refugees has been lacking, as Syria’s neighbors lack the resources and in some cases the desire to handle such a large influx of people.

“The economic, social and human cost of caring for refugees and the internally displaced is being borne mostly by poor communities, those who are least able to afford it.”

Mr. Guterres explained that enhanced international solidarity is a must to avoid the risk of more and more vulnerable people being left without proper support.

Among the report’s main findings are that Syrians, for the first time, have become the largest refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate, overtaking Afghans, who had held that position for more than three decades.

As of June 2014, the three million Syrian refugees now account for 23 per cent of all refugees being helped by UNHCR worldwide.

Assad tortures his opponents, he has used chemical weapons, and drops barrel bombs which kill indiscriminately. Diseases which are easily curable or had largely disappeared (polio) claim lives on a daily basis. Compared to ISIL Assad may be the lesser of two evils, but both parties are evils that must be dealt with.

To this end, the U.S. and Turkey are finalizing plans to train moderate Syrian rebels, a condition of Turkey’s in exchange for using its bases to carry out airstrikes against ISIL:

Turkey and the United States aim to finalize an agreement on equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels this month, a senior foreign ministry official said on Monday, part of the U.S.-led campaign to battle Islamic State militants.

The training is expected to start in March, simultaneously with similar programs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Turkish official said. The aim is to train 15,000 Syrian rebels over three years.

Turkey has by no means been a perfect partner in the fights against Assad and ISIL. Turkey has dragged its feet in the battle against ISIL, fearful that it will empower rival Kurdish factions in the region. But in this case Turkey is right–the rise of ISIL must not detract from the goal of removing Assad from power.

As a regional power and member of NATO, I would like to see Turkey lend use of its air bases, help in training efforts, and contribute ground troops in the fights against Assad and ISIL–I will not hold my breath.

A recent United Nations report found that Syria has lost more than three decades in human development in just three-year old civil war:

The report released by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) shows that almost 45 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, compared to 12 per cent prior to the war.

The unemployment rate has also drastically increased, from eight to almost 50 per cent.

Abdalla Dardari, a senior economist at ESCWA, says that before the war, Syria was one of the few Arab countries which had surpassed all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Today, he says Syria is only more advanced in reaching the goals than Somalia.

The report predicts that if the crisis continues until 2015, 90 per cent of Syrians will be considered as poor.

Unfortunately, the ravages of war will not end when the fighting eventually stops. Many Syrian children are dealing with psychological trauma and a lack of schooling which will greatly inhibit their future earning potential. Others are being indoctrinated by ISIL, learning to hate “the West” instead of learning the skills needed to compete in a modern, globalized world.

The road to rebuilding Syria into a modern society will be a long, expensive one. It requires an immediate influx of resources from the international community to support refugees and their host countries, deliver aid to internally displaced peoples (whenever possible), and build the capacity of the moderate Syrian opposition.

The groundwork for slipping back into conflict will exist as soon as the civil war ends. It will require unprecedented political will, a dedication to pluralism and accountable governance, and support from the international community to rebuild a modern, peaceful Syria.

But in order for a future Syrian government to even have a chance to attempt this difficult feat, both Assad and ISIL must be defeated.

 


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Conflict Watch: Meet the New Coalition, (Not the) Same as the Old Coaliton

At the NATO summit in Wales, a strategy for dealing with the growing ISIS threat was unveiled:

In his most expansive comments to date about how the United States and its friends could defeat ISIS, a once-obscure group of Sunni militants that has now upended the Middle East and overshadowed Al Qaeda, Mr. Obama said the effort would rely on American airstrikes against its leaders and positions, strengthen the moderate Syrian rebel groups to reclaim ground lost to ISIS, and enlist friendly governments in the region to join the fight.

Mr. Obama spoke after aides had unveiled what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the “core coalition” to fight the ISIS militants, the outcome of a hastily organized meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit talks. Diplomats and defense officials from the United States, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark huddled to devise a two-pronged strategy: strengthening allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria, while bombing Sunni militants from the air.

“There is no containment policy for ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at the start of the meeting. “They’re an ambitious, avowed, genocidal, territorial-grabbing, caliphate-desiring quasi state with an irregular army, and leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us.”

But he and other officials made clear that at the moment, any ground combat troops would come from either Iraqi security forces and Kurdish pesh merga fighters in Iraq, or the moderate Syrian rebels opposed to President Assad in Syria. “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground,” Mr. Kerry said.

For Mr. Obama, assembling a coalition to fight ISIS is particularly important to a president whose initial arrival on the global stage was centered around his opposition to the war in Iraq. He is loath to be viewed as going it alone now that he has been dragged back into a combat role in the same country.

An administration official said the reasons for assembling a coalition went beyond any political cover that such an alliance might provide with a war-weary American public. For one thing, the official said, certain countries bring expertise, like Britain and Australia in special operations, Jordan in intelligence and Saudi Arabia in financing.  

American officials are hoping to expand the coalition to many countries, particularly in the region. Obama administration officials said privately that in addition to the participants at the meeting Friday, the United States was hoping to get quiet intelligence help about the Sunni militants from Jordan. Its leader, King Abdullah II, was attending the Wales summit meeting.

United States officials said they also expected Saudi Arabia to contribute to funding moderate Syrian rebel groups. In addition, Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, said in a statement this week that the Emirates stood ready to join the fight against ISIS. “No one has more at stake than the U.A.E. and other moderate countries in the region that have rejected the regressive Islamist creed and embraced a different, forward-looking path,” the ambassador said.

And like the comprehensive strategy to combat Al Qaeda that has taken years to develop and carry out, Mr. Olsen and other counterterrorism officials said  on Friday that destroying the threat from ISIS could take a long time. Even if successful, they said, such a strategy would require maintaining pressure on any remnants of the group.

This plan is consistent with what I have called “The Obama Doctrine“, also know affectionately as the “don’t do stupid stuff” approach to foreign affairs. America cannot afford to get entangled in costly wars (both in economic and human costs). But the world cannot afford to do nothing while threats like ISIS further cement their control. To do nothing would be both morally unconscionable and tactically ineffective.

There are certain elements of this “Coalition of the Willing” that should make it more effective than it’s predecessor in the previous Iraq War:

1) No Boots on the Ground:

A war weary American public has no appetite for a ground invasion in the Middle East. Putting “boots on the ground” is costly in many different senses. Some costs are impossible to quantify, such as lives lost and the physical and mental ailments affecting surviving soldiers (costs which must be paid for the rest of their lives).

Other candidates to provide troops–“rich” countries–are dealing with recessed economies and difficult budgetary decisions; the resources simply do not exist to provide ground troops, even if the will was there. I have argued that Germany and Japan specifically must step up their global security contributions, bringing them more in line with their prominence in the global economy. But even so, these countries will not place troops on the ground, nor should they.

The new plan, a central tenant of the Obama Doctrine, is to provide support (intelligence, weaponry, training) to friendly and stable forces in the region. In the fight against ISIS, this includes the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and moderate Syrian rebels (led by the Free Syrian Army).

The role of the Egyptian Armed Forces will be interesting to monitor. One on hand, the forces are well equipped and have a strong anti-terrorism mandate. On the other hand, human rights concerns have alienated Egypt from many of the members of the Coalition. We will have to wait and see what role the Egyptian Armed Forces play in this coalition. Update: It appears Egypt will not play a prominent role in this coalition; one could argue The Egyptian armed forces do no want to degrade ISIS–extremist groups provide the impetus for strong handed militaristic governance.

2) Enlisting The Help of Allies:

Any coalition, by definition, includes multiple partners. The Coalition of the Willing for the War in Iraq included 48 members. However, simply listing country names does not mean countries play a meaningful role; many of the members of that coalition provided little more than a vote of confidence.

It appears that members of this coalition will have more defined roles. Notably, ground forces will be provided exclusively by regional actors. This “capacity building” approach should lead to a more sustainable security situation in the region, leaving stable armed forces in place once this particular offensive has concluded (of course this is far from a guarantee; it is very difficult to tell how decisions like this will play out down the line, especially in a region as volatile as the ME).

It is important that the coalition do it’s best to function as a cohesive group. While dividing duties allows for specialization based on expertise and cost-sharing, it can also lead to disagreement and paralyze action. For all its many deplorable attributes, ISIS has proven itself to be well organized and capable of moving very quickly. The coalition must put in place representative leadership that allows for quick, reactive decision making.

The dearth of stable and capable regional allies further complicates matters. I already mentioned Egypt’s questionable role; two countries the international community cannot count on at all are Iran and Syria.

Iran provides a counterbalance to Sunni extremists, but fails in terms of the pluralistic, sectarian-blind solutions needed in the region.

Syria has began launching an offensive against ISIS. However, one cannot imagine an instance in which the coalition’s members–many of which have taken strong anti-Assad positions–would accept his regimes support.

Despite all these caveats, this new coalition is an important first step in the long-term fight against ISIS. The coalition has the advantage of resources, legitimate goals, and lessons learned from previous interventions in the region. In time ISIS will be defeated.

Update: The new coalition has gotten off on rocky footing , with many expected allies failing to agree to the strong, specific commitments America was hoping for.


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Conflict Watch: Why America Should Support An Independent Kurdistan

Map

It appears Iraq and Syria, dubbed the “twins” by Thomas Friedman, probably cannot be restored to their previously defined borders:

There is much talk right now about America teaming up with Iran to push back the coalition of Sunni militias that has taken over Mosul and other Sunni towns in western Iraq and Syria. For now, I’d say stay out of this fight — not because it’s the best option, but because it’s the least bad.

After all, what is the context in which we’d be intervening? Iraq and Syria are twins: multiethnic and multisectarian societies that have been governed, like other Arab states, from the top-down. First, it was by soft-fisted Ottomans who ruled through local notables in a decentralized fashion, then by iron-fisted British and French colonial powers and later by iron-fisted nationalist kings and dictators.

Today, the Ottomans are gone, the British and French are gone and now many of the kings and dictators are gone. We removed Iraq’s dictator; NATO and tribal rebels removed Libya’s; the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen got rid of theirs; and some people in Syria have tried to topple theirs. Each country is now faced with the challenge of trying to govern itself horizontally by having the different sects, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who rotate power.

In Iraq, the Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki — who had the best chance, the most oil money and the most help from the U.S. in writing a social contract for how to govern Iraq horizontally — chose instead, from the moment the Americans left, to empower Iraqi Shiites and disempower Iraqi Sunnis. It’s no surprise that Iraqi Sunnis decided to grab their own sectarian chunk of the country.

So today, it seems, a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically or horizontally. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another. It would appear that the only way they can remain united is if an international force comes in, evicts the dictators, uproots the extremists and builds consensual politics from the ground up — a generational project for which there are no volunteers.

Pluralism came to Europe only after many centuries of one side or another in religious wars thinking it could have it all, and after much ethnic cleansing created more homogeneous nations. Europe also went through the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Arab Muslims need to go on the same journey. It will happen when they want to or when they have exhausted all other options. Meanwhile, let’s strengthen the islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kurdistan — and strengthen our own democracy to insulate ourselves as best we can.

The U.S. does not support an independent Kurdistan, instead favoring Iraqi reunification. I believe this position stems from perceived  “sunk costs”; the U.S. invested so much into nation building in Iraq, supporting Kurdish independence would mean admitting the Iraq war was a failure (something most American’s have already done, but politicians are still reluctant to do). Fighting for a unified Iraq at this point seems like a lost cause, but the obvious alternative, supporting Kurdistan, could be used as political ammo in the 2014 midterm elections. In sum, while Kurdish independence may be the best alternative for those committed to democracy and pluralism in the Middle-East, it may not be best for American politicians, and that alone could hold back any independence movement for the time being.

Both Israel and Turkey have voiced support for Kurdish autonomy (although they have backed away from those statements in the following days), and it is not difficult to see why. The Kurd’s have historically promoted many values consistent with “modern” societies; democracy, human rights, inclusion, gender equality, etc.

Equally as telling are Kurdistan’s detractor’s, notably Egypt’s President Sisi. Sisi publicly stated on Sunday that Kurdish independence would be “catastrophic”, empowering ISIS militants. However, he offers no actual evidence to support his claim. Kurdistan, for the reasons listed above, represents a threat to both the Islamic State’s (formerly ISIS / ISIL) and Sisi’s brands of authoritarianism.

Kurdistan would be another reliable ally in the Middle East alongside Israel. The success of Kurdistan would show that a Muslim, Middle Eastern, pluralistic democratic state can exist, and revitalize democratic movements in the region. Turkey is too “European”, Tunisia is small (and not landlocked), Egypt has slid back into authoritarianism, and Syria and Iraq coming apart at the seams; the legacy of the “Arab Spring” revolutions may ultimately rest in the in the success or failure of Kurdistan.

And while the timing for Kurdish autonomy may not be right for American politicians, it is right for the Kurds, and that is ultimately of more importance. The Kurds have recently gained control of the Kurikut oil field, adding financial viability to a future Kurdistan. When determining which regimes to support, Thomas Friedman talked about “islands of decency” in the Middle East, a call I echoed in a recent blog. The Kurd’s are planning a referendum for independence “within a matter of months”; the U.S. and other democratic powers must be ready to stand by our Kurdish partners with this referendum takes place.

 


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Conflict Watch: ISIL, Terrorism, and Social Media

When one thinks of an extremist / terrorist organization such as ISIL, the first things that comes to mind are probably guerrilla warfare, intimidation and coercion; given recent mass killings in Syria and Iraq, it is obvious where this image comes from. While this image is accurate, it is an incomplete view of the enemy we are fighting. What we are dealing with is a foe who embraces the theory of “hearts and minds” by providing essential services to people, is skilled in propaganda (especially when we give them “ammo”, such as drone warfare), and has embraced social media in order to attract a larger, younger, international following:

The extremist group battling the Iraqi government, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, may practice a seventh-century version of fundamentalist Islam, but it has demonstrated modern sophistication when it comes to using social media, particularly Twitter and other sites like WordPress and Tumblr.

What ISIS realized, more quickly and effectively than its rivals, was that “smartphones and social media accounts are all that is needed to instantly share material in real time with tens of thousands of jihadists,” said Rita Katz, a terrorism analyst who on Friday published a study of ISIS and Twitter on the website of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online.

“ISIS, as well as its fighters and supporters, quickly adopted these tools and has been utilizing the latest Internet technologies and social media outlets to maintain massive, sophisticated online media campaigns used to promote jihad, communicate, recruit and intimidate,” Ms. Katz wrote.

Aside from sowing terror and winning extremist admirers, ISIS’s use of social media has also had both strategic and tactical impacts on the battlefield.

In Mosul, two weeks before ISIS attacked and overran the city, it began broadcasting individualized death threats on its Facebook accounts to every Iraqi journalist working in the city, said one of those singled out.

Many experts on extremists’ online activity have complained that the social networking sites should be policing their platforms better.

“Twitter must adapt to these new circumstances and become more proactive in deterring such activity,” Ms. Katz said. “It has the capability to carry out account monitoring and suspensions on much larger scales than it has thus far.”

An official of a social networking site, who said he would speak frankly only if his name was not used, said the huge size of the major sites made it impossible to enforce rules against terrorists’ use. “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole,” he said.

“We constantly look at these things and when we find them we take them down,” he said. “Our policy is any terrorist organization, we take down.”

For instance, Facebook has shut down a half-dozen accounts linked to ISIS, the social networking official said.

Guerrilla warfare is intrinsically hard to defeat; by decentralizing power, the cost of any individual loss is minimized. Terrorist groups have successfully used this leaner form of warfare to counter opponents who have greater resources than them. Social media is an extension of guerrilla tactics; accounts are free to setup, and once one is closed, another pops up.

On Sunday, ISIL announced the formation of an Islamic caliphate on Twitter. This announcement was billed as “the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11,” according to Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. The fact that ISIL would take to social media for such an important announcement shows how fully the organization has embraced modern technologies.

To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the ancient  Chinese military strategist whose famous work “The Art of War” remains relevant today, it is important to both “know thy enemy and thyself”. The United States, under the leadership of President Obama, has “found” its Post-War on Terror foreign policy identity: a mixture of drone warfare, local capacity building in conflict areas (including technical “good governance” assistance, intelligence sharing, military training, and economic assistance) and more evenly spreading the costs of global security with other developed world powers.

We found this identity both from our own failures, and by recognizing that our enemy has evolved. Al Qaeda and its offshoots have gone from a relatively “vertical” organization under Osama Bin Laden, to a “horizontal” and splintered group of extremist organizations. Due to shortcomings in domestic governance, they have positioned themselves to Middle-Eastern societies as an alternative to modern democracy; a preserver of tradition and religion and provider of basic needs (including security against American drone warfare). Furthermore, they have begun to utilize tools such as social media to galvanize public support (similarly to how democratic movements have been organized via social media).

Extremist groups like ISIL are deplorable; they represent backwards and socially regressive norms. However, they have also proven themselves to be incredibly adaptable and resilient. With this in mind, it would be prudent for America and it’s allies to shift resources away from programs which fuel extremist popularity (such as drone warfare, which while sometimes needed, has been overused too the point of counter-productivity), and towards programs that undermine their appeal (government capacity building both for public service delivery and security forces, and building relationships / institutions which promote inclusive and pluralistic democratic governance).


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Conflict Watch: How “Starve-the-Beast” Failed The Most Vulnerable at Home and Abroad

In consecutive Op-Ed articles, NYT writer Thomas Friedman considers how unscrupulous leaders and U.S. foreign policy have failed those dedicated to pluralism and democracy in the Middle East:

What to do With the Twins?:

Iraq and Syria are twins: multiethnic and multisectarian societies that have been governed, like other Arab states, from the top-down. First, it was by soft-fisted Ottomans who ruled through local notables in a decentralized fashion, then by iron-fisted British and French colonial powers and later by iron-fisted nationalist kings and dictators.

Today, the Ottomans are gone, the British and French are gone and now many of the kings and dictators are gone. We removed Iraq’s dictator; NATO and tribal rebels removed Libya’s; the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen got rid of theirs; and some people in Syria have tried to topple theirs. Each country is now faced with the challenge of trying to govern itself horizontally by having the different sects, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who rotate power.

In Iraq, the Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki — who had the best chance, the most oil money and the most help from the U.S. in writing a social contract for how to govern Iraq horizontally — chose instead, from the moment the Americans left, to empower Iraqi Shiites and disempower Iraqi Sunnis. It’s no surprise that Iraqi Sunnis decided to grab their own sectarian chunk of the country.

So today, it seems, a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically or horizontally. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another. It would appear that the only way they can remain united is if an international force comes in, evicts the dictators, uproots the extremists and builds consensual politics from the ground up — a generational project for which there are no volunteers.

I could say that before President Obama drops even an empty Coke can from a U.S. fighter jet on the Sunni militias in Iraq we need to insist that Maliki resign and a national unity cabinet be created that is made up of inclusive Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders. I could say that that is the necessary condition for reunification of Iraq. And I could say that it is absolutely not in our interest or the world’s to see Iraq break apart and one segment be ruled by murderous Sunni militias.

ISIS / SISI:

ISIS and Sisi, argues Perlov, a researcher on Middle East social networks at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, are just flip sides of the same coin: one elevates “god” as the arbiter of all political life and the other “the national state.”

Both have failed and will continue to fail — and require coercion to stay in power — because they cannot deliver for young Arabs and Muslims what they need most: the education, freedom and jobs to realize their full potential and the ability to participate as equal citizens in their political life.

We are going to have to wait for a new generation that “puts society in the center,” argues Perlov, a new Arab/Muslim generation that asks not “how can we serve god or how can we serve the state but how can they serve us.”

Perlov argues that these governing models — hyper-Islamism (ISIS) driven by a war against “takfiris,” or apostates, which is how Sunni Muslim extremists refer to Shiite Muslims; and hyper-nationalism (SISI) driven by a war against Islamist “terrorists,” which is what the Egyptian state calls the Muslim Brotherhood — need to be exhausted to make room for a third option built on pluralism in society, religion and thought.

The Arab world needs to finally puncture the twin myths of the military state (SISI) or the Islamic state (ISIS) that will bring prosperity, stability and dignity. Only when the general populations “finally admit that they are both failed and unworkable models,” argues Perlov, might there be “a chance to see this region move to the 21st century.”

“Both the secular authoritarian model — most recently represented by Sisi — and the radical religious model — represented now by ISIS — have failed,” adds Marwan Muasher, the former foreign minister of Jordan and author of “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism.” “They did because they have not addressed peoples’ real needs: improving the quality of their life, both in economic and development terms, and also in feeling they are part of the decision-making process.  Both models have been exclusionist, presenting themselves as the holders of absolute truth and of the solution to all society’s problems.”

We tend to make every story about us. But this is not all about us. To be sure, we’ve done plenty of ignorant things in Iraq and Egypt. But we also helped open their doors to a different future, which their leaders have slammed shut for now. Going forward, where we see people truly committed to pluralism, we should help support them. And where we see islands of decency threatened, we should help protect them. But this is primarily about them, about their need to learn to live together without an iron fist from the top, and it will happen only when and if they want it to happen.

Essentially, the twin cases of Iraq and Syria have been a crash course in what not to do. The U.S. invaded Iraq without an established partner ready and willing to defend a pluralistic democratic society. We ended up spending trillions of dollars, found no “weapons of mass destruction”, and, given recent developments in the region, have left Iraq in worse shape than under Saddam (and by no means do I believe Saddam was a viable long term solution either, stick with me here).

In Syria, Iraq’s twin state, essentially the exact opposite situation played out. A war weary American public held the belief it was best to not intervene militarily in Syria in the early stages of the uprising. But Syria was not Iraq; there was an organic, grass roots, civil society movement based on modern pluralistic democratic governance ready to fill the power void. Assad was and continues to butcher his own people openly and indiscriminately, and the pluralistic movement based on soft power has ceded ground to vicious extremist groups and government bombardment. This story has many parallels to what has transpired in Egypt over the past few years.

We must assist legitimate, pluralistic, democratic movements in the developing world, as they are the key to sustainable human development. Going to war without such an ally is a fools errand, as The Iraq War has shown. Abandoning such an ally (as we have done in Egypt and Syria) results in the slaughter of innocents, reverses in economic development and human rights, and presents opportunities for the rise of extremism / authoritarianism. When such an ally presents itself, we must be ready to assist them, before it is too late and that ally is marginalized / defeated.

US Domestic Fiscal Policy:

The Iraq War highlights the greater folly of “starve-the-beast” economic policy. The central tenet of starve-the-beast is that government is just that, a beast, whose role must be minimalized. Notably, President W. Bush went to war in Iraq and gave large tax cuts during his presidency–he starved the beast. The U.S. government was therefore in a poor position to weather the Great Recession, creating somewhat artificial budget debates (even though for the U.S. Federal government, borrowing money was and remains little more expensive that spending from surplus).

Had Bush not given his tax breaks, and the U.S. was determining policy from the prospect of a huge federal surplus, one could argue that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would have been substantially larger (and therefore substantially more effective). President Obama deserves some of the blame for the inadequacies of the ARRA; he was a new president, very idealistic, and tried to make everyone in Washington happy instead of getting the best deal for the American people. Perhaps he wrongfully believed he could go back for more stimulus money later if needed–if so, this was a costly miscalculation. Nevertheless, the fiscal context against which the ARRA was drafted naturally played a role in its composition.

As the economic recovery drudges on for the vast majority of Americans (low growth, high unemployment, stagnant wages), one cannot help but wonder how different things may have been had the U.S. Federal government instead pursued somewhat counter-cyclical fiscal policies.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Getting the U.S. tied up in a decade of war sapped resources and public will to defend pluralism, human rights, and democracy abroad (understandably so; when they’re threatening to cancel your food stamps / unemployment insurance / pension, who cares whats going on in Syria?).

The U.S. fought a war we had no business fighting in Iraq, leaving ourselves unwilling to assist legitimate democratic movements in Egypt and Syria. This is the major consequence of starve the beast philosophy–when we waist money on things we don’t need now, we cannot afford the things we do need later (at least without relying on deficit spending). Domestically, unneeded tax cuts meant there was not enough stimulus money to jump-start the U.S. economy. Abroad, the will to intervene in situations where we should have intervened did not exist because of an unnecessary war.

Of all the costs of the Iraq War, our inability to assist our allies abroad in their time of need may indeed turn out to be our greatest failure.

It is up to civil societies to determine for themselves when to cast off the shackles of authoritarianism and demand modern and pluralistic democratic governance. It is the role of the U.S. and our allies to defend and nurture those movements whenever they present themselves.

(Earlier this week President Obama called for $500 million to train and assist the moderate Syrian opposition; file that one under too little too late category.)

The U.S. government is not a beast, it is a force for progress and socioeconomic justice both at home and abroad, and the leader of the “international community”. Have their been policy failures, both home and abroad, in recent history? Of course. This is no reason to dismiss the many positive outcomes stemming from American domestic and foreign policies.

Starving the beast has real costs for both America and the world’s most vulnerable people; it is mind boggling that it has been the rallying cry of a major American political party for decades.


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Transparency Thursday: Deriving the True Cost of “The War on Terror”

The “War on Terror” has been costly in a number of ways. The first thing we think of when we think of the cost of any war is the human death toll. The total number of deaths for U.S. military personnel is estimated at 6,518 . When considering casualties (deaths and wounded soldiers), that number balloons to 48,430. This means, according to estimates, a whopping 41,936 soldiers returned to the U.S. wounded from battle (physically or psychologically).

The number of deaths of indigenous people resulting from “The War on Terror” (which included military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) is estimated to be between 272,000 to 329,000.

From a death toll standpoint, the Americans escaped relatively unscathed. According to these numbers, there were 42 foreigner deaths to every American soldier killed. Not to discount those brave men and women who lost their lives fighting in “The War on Terror”, but it was historically one of the least deadly wars in U.S. history (in terms of the total % of U.S. population killed, .002%, and U.S. deaths per day, 1.72).

Human life is the hardest cost to quantify, because there is no numerical value that can be ascribed to a person’s life. Surely, more money was invested in each American soldier that died than in each Middle-Easterner killed, as the U.S. invests more in human capital (education, healthcare) and soldier training than the average Iraqi, Afghani, or Pakistani receives. But many of those killed in The War on Terror were innocent men, women and children. How do you value a life? Based on a person’s skill, or their age, or what they could have accomplished? The answer is that there is no answer, every death is personal (to a family / community), and leaves us wondering “what if”. The U.S. compensates families as best it can for those lost in war (although it can never bring that person back), whole most of the people who had loved ones die at the hands of U.S. soldiers receive nothing and are left trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

Compared to the human cost, the dollar value of war is relatively straightforward:

“The 2011 study said the combined cost of the wars was at least $3.7 trillion, based on actual expenditures from the U.S. Treasury and future commitments, such as the medical and disability claims of U.S. war veterans.

That estimate climbed to nearly $4 trillion in the update… the costs left out trillions of dollars in interest the United States could pay over the next 40 years.

The interest on expenses for the Iraq war could amount to about $4 trillion during that period, the report said.”

If “The War on Terror” ended today, the bill could total 8 trillion dollars when future interest payments and veterans benefits are considered. To put that in perspective, the U.S. national debt clock currently reads $16.7 trillion. Of all the debt the U.S. government owes, a little less than half of it is due to “The War on Terror” (and one has to wonder how much of the unknown cost of the war is included in the “debt clock” figure, and if that figure should not be adjusted higher as more information on the monetary cost of the war becomes available).

What is less straightforward is the social cost of “The War on Terror”. Since the fighting occurred overseas, everyday U.S. life was generally uninterrupted. Those in the Middle-East were not so lucky:

“Excluded [from the 272,000 to 329,000 estimate] were indirect deaths caused by the mass exodus of doctors and a devastated infrastructure, for example…”

“The war reinvigorated radical Islamist militants in the region, set back women’s rights, and weakened an already precarious healthcare system, the report said. Meanwhile, the $212 billion reconstruction effort was largely a failure with most of that money spent on security or lost to waste and fraud…”

That is not to say that there was no social cost for the U.S. As the above numbers indicate, an estimated 6,500 soldiers died in the war, while an estimated 42,000 more were considered casualties of war. The families of the deceased must be compensated, while those lucky enough to be alive face the challenge of living with a physical or psychological handicap. Those lucky enough to escape with their lives and without injury must still receive the benefits they are entitled to, and these numbers add up over time:

“The report also examined the burden on U.S. veterans and their families, showing a deep social cost as well as an increase in spending on veterans. The 2011 study found U.S. medical and disability claims for veterans after a decade of war totaled $33 billion. Two years later, that number had risen to $134.7 billion.”

As forces are pulled out of Afghanistan, we can only expect that number to rise exponentially. So now that we have a rough idea of the human, social, and dollar costs of war, we must ask ourselves “why did we do this?”  To that question, there is unfortunately no good answer.

The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2001 in response to the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. The rationale behind this invasion was that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”. Over time, this claim has been proven false.

When France began involvement in Mali, and while President Obama mulls over his options in Syria, it would be prudent to heed this warning (which I have stated before): be cautious of anybody trying to sell a quick and painless military intervention:

“‘Action needed to be taken,’ said Steven Bucci, the military assistant to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the run-up to the war and today a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think-tank.

Bucci, who was unconnected to the Watson study, agreed with its observation that the forecasts for the cost and duration of the war proved to be a tiny fraction of the real costs.

“If we had had the foresight to see how long it would last and even if it would have cost half the lives, we would not have gone in,” Bucci said. “Just the time alone would have been enough to stop us. Everyone thought it would be short.”

Due diligence must be taken more seriously. The estimated dollar costs of war fail to take into account the human and social costs, and even still tend to be overly optimistic. The price of fanning the flames of hatred in Islamic countries has also yet to be fully realized.

Whenever there is a question of domestic spending in the U.S., a long debate ensues, the specter of “moral hazard” is evoked, and quick action rarely takes place (if at all). Why then were our same tax dollars spent so liberally on these unneeded wars?

Is this what President Eisenhower was referring to when he famously warnedwe must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex”? A future where military spending was out of control, where money was spent on defense without proper due diligence while simultaneously taking money away from crucial domestic programs? I would say it certainly is; military spending accounted for 24% of the 2012 Federal Budget (education accounted for 4%). Eisenhower made this famous warning in his farewell address in 1961, yet it seems that over 50 years later we still have not heeded his words.

What we see now is people saying we didn’t know what we thought we knew, both in terms of the duration of the war and the reason for invading in the first place (weapons of mass destruction). Would a misappropriation of trillions of dollars on domestic programs be tolerated? Of course not. We should therefore take this as a lesson learned and reconsider how the U.S. intervenes in foreign affairs.

I have argued for a substantial downsizing of U.S. D.o.D. spending, with some of the money being reallocated to the D.o.S. (and to USAID specifically, to tackle the humanitarian roots of conflict which provide breeding grounds for terrorist activities), and the rest of the money going to underfunded domestic programs (or paying down the deficit).

Other countries do not want our help in the form of military intervention. While the costs of “The War on Terror” were much higher than initially believe, the benefits have been much lower (and in time may prove to be non-existent). The U.S. holds little sway over Iraqi policy since we pulled out in 2011, and recently Afghani President Hamid Karzia has taken up anti-American rhetoric to prove he is not a puppet of the west as the U.S. begins winding down its military efforts in Afghanistan.

Hopefully a lesson (albeit a costly one) has been learned. You cannot impose democracy through war. Democracy must occur organically through a process of empowering the citizens of a country. Less money, spent more carefully through the D.o.S., would go a longer way in achieving the goal of creating strategic regional allies.

We must also work more closely with existing strategic regional allies (in the Middle East, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia come to mind) and our allies in Europe and around the world, to ensure a multilateral approach is taken when intervening in another country. This would reduce both the high (monetary) costs and  anti-American sentiment associated with unilateral U.S. military intervention. It should also increase the meager benefits that have come to define “The War on Terror” by creating lasting allies instead of simply running costly “babysitting” campaigns.

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