Category Archives: Syria

A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Yazidi women in both Syria and Iraq have suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS — but they will be caught up in Trump-era restrictions on refugees all the same. (Reuters)

There’s a neighborhood in Los Angeles, commonly known as Tehrangeles, that is home to up to a half-million Persian Americans, most of whom fled Iran after the 1979 Islamic republic or who are their second-generation children and third-generation grandchildren, all of them American citizens. 

The neighborhood runs along Westwood Boulevard, and it is home to some of the wealthiest Angelinos. But under the executive action that US president Donald Trump signed Friday afternoon, their relatives in Iran will have a much more difficult time visiting them in Los Angeles (or elsewhere in the United States). The impact of the order, over the weekend, proved far deeper than originally imagined last week when drafts of the order circulated widely in the media.

The ban attempts to accomplish at least five different actions, all of which began to take effect immediately on Friday:

  • First, the order institutes a ban for 90 days on immigrants from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya.
  • Secondly, the ban initially seemed to include even US permanent residents with valid green cards with citizenship from those seven countries (though the Department of Homeland Security was walking that back on Sunday, after reports that presidential adviser and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon initially overruled DHS objections Friday). But it also includes citizens of third countries with dual citizenship (which presents its own problems and which the White House does not seem to be walking back).
  • Third, it institutes a 120-day freeze on all refugees into the United States from anywhere across the globe and an indefinite ban for all refugees from Syria.
  • Fourth, it places a cap of 50,000 on all refugees for 2017 — that’s far less than nearly 85,000 refugees who were admitted to the United States in 2016, though it’s not markedly less than the nearly 55,000 refugees admitted in 2011 (the lowest point of the Obama administration) and it’s more than the roughly 25,000 to 30,000 refugees admitted in 2002 and 2003 during the Bush administration.
  • Fifth, and finally, when the United States once again permits refugees, it purports to prioritize admitting those refugees ‘when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.’ It’s widely assumed that this is a back-door approach to prioritizing Christian refugees. More on that below.

In practice, it’s already incredibly difficult to get a visa of any variety if you are coming from one of those countries, with a few exceptions. But formalizing the list is both overbroad (it captures mostly innocent travelers and refugees) and underbroad (it doesn’t include potential terrorists from other countries), and experts believe it will hurt US citizens, US businesses and bona fide refugees who otherwise might have expected asylum in the United States. On Sunday, many Republican leaders, including Arizona senator John McCain admitted as such:

Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism. At this very moment, American troops are fighting side-by-side with our Iraqi partners to defeat ISIL. But this executive order bans Iraqi pilots from coming to military bases in Arizona to fight our common enemies. Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.

On the campaign trail, Trump initially called for a ban on all Muslims from entering the country; when experts responded that such a broad-based religious test would be unconstitutional, Trump said he would instead extend the ban on the basis of nationality.

Friday’s executive action looks like the first step of institutionalizing the de facto Muslim ban that Trump originally promised (thought it would on its face be blatantly unconstitutional).

Of course, as many commentators have noted, the list doesn’t contain the countries that match the nationalities of the September 2001 hijackers — mostly Saudi Arabia. But it doesn’t contain Lebanon, though Hezbollah fighters have aligned with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war. It doesn’t include Egypt, which is the most populous Muslim country in north Africa and home to one of the Sept. 2001 terrorists. Nor does it include Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Nor Pakistan nor Afghanistan, where US troops fought to eradicate forms of hardline Taliban government and where US troops ultimately tracked and killed Osama bin Laden.

This isn’t a call to add more countries to the list, of course, which would be even more self-defeating as US policy. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Bannon and Trump, anticipating this criticism, will use it to justify a second round of countries.

In the meanwhile, the diplomatic fallout is only just beginning (and certainly will intensify — Monday is the first full business day after we’ve read the actual text of Friday’s executive order). Already, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, citing the obligations of international law under the Geneva Conventions, disavowed the ban. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau used it as an opportunity to showcase his country’s openness to immigration and welcomed the refugees to Canada. Even Theresa May, the British prime minister who shared a stage with Trump in Washington on Friday afternoon, distanced herself from the ban, and British foreign minister Boris Johnson called it ‘divisive.’

But the most direct impact will be felt in relations with the seven countries directly affected by the ban, and there are already indications that the United States will suffer a strategic, diplomatic and possible economic price for Trump’s hasty unilateral executive order.  Continue reading A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Photo of the day: A haunting victim of Aleppo’s siege

A dazed child receives medical assistance after another horrific day of urban warfare in the battle of Aleppo.
A dazed child receives medical assistance after another horrific day of urban warfare in the battle of Aleppo.

It’s important for the rest of the world to see what’s happening in Aleppo. Even when it’s ugly. Even when it means a child dazed and confused by the horrors of war. The video is even more heart-breaking. Our hearts should cry for what’s happened in Syria for 5.5 years. It’s disgusting.Syria Flag Icon freesyria

It’s going to get worse in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, now divided between a western half still controlled by Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian army and an eastern half held by Sunni, anti-Assad rebels. The fighting is now fierce, and it has been for weeks. Both sides have committed atrocities. Dwindling water, food, power and medical care for over 2 million residents means that Aleppo could also spiral into a humanitarian crisis.

Russian bombs are making it worse.

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RELATED: Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

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Here in the United States, as we indulge ourselves in a presidential election focused on xenophobia, division and isolationism, when we should be thinking deeply about economic and social policy and global leadership, we may even hear the cries to ‘do something’ above the cowardly screeching  of Trumpismo.

Given the huge American military, most will naturally think first of a military solution. But of course the most effective things that the United States could do are things that it will not. One is to provide more financial aid to Lebanon that can assist the country in assimilating and caring for a deluge of around 1.5 million refugees (though the US government did find $50 million to fund the country’s military earlier this month).

Even more effective would be granting refugee status to more of the victims of Syria’s civil war here in the United States when a trickle of just 10,000 refugees — itself a massive increase — remains deeply inadequate and uncharitable for a country built on immigration.

Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)
Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)

Aleppo, the most populous city in Syria, has become in August the center stage for one of the most tragic urban battles of the country’s five-and-a-half year civil war.freesyria Syria Flag Icon

The first battle of Aleppo that began in July 2012 and lasted for months, brought some of the worst of the earliest fighting to an industrial and cultural capital home to some 2.5 million Syrians before the war.

By early 2013, after thousands of deaths and widespread urban destruction (including parts of Aleppo’s old city and the Great Mosque of Aleppo), a stalemate developed between the eastern half, controlled by various Sunni rebel groups and the western half, controlled by the Syrian army that supports president Bashar al-Assad.

Last week, rebel forces — including the hardline militia formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra — broke through to Ramouseh, a key sector in the southwest of the city. Among other things, Ramouseh is home to some of the most important bases in the area for the Syrian army. More importantly, the rebel offensive hoped to open and secure a corridor between the besieged eastern half of Aleppo to other rebel-controlled areas to the south of Aleppo that could provide a pathway to food, water, power and other supplies to the rebel-controlled portions of Aleppo.

As of last week, the rebels had the upper hand after pushing into Ramouseh. Over the weekend, however, the Syrian army reclaimed some of its territory and effectively halted the rebel advance with punishing support from the Russian military.

(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)
(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)

Meanwhile, civilians across Aleppo (in both the government- and rebel-controlled areas) face a growing risk of a humanitarian crisis, lacking access to basic necessities like electric power, food and water in fierce summertime conditions. Intriguingly, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu also claimed over the weekend that Russian and U.S. forces were close to taking ‘joint action’ on Aleppo. It’s odd because Russian president Vladimir Putin firmly backs Assad, while US officials have expressed the view that Assad’s departure alone can bring about a lasting end to the civil war. One possibility is a pause in hostilities to allow aid workers to provide food, water and medical care to civilians caught in what has become one of the deadliest battles in the Syrian civil war to date.

As the battle for Aleppo dominates headlines about Syria’s war, it is quickly becoming a symbolic fight for Syria’s future. Continue reading Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

The aftermath of an American strike in Syria's Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)
The aftermath of an American strike in Syria’s Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)

Call it the ‘coalition of the frenemies.’Syria Flag Icon

With British prime minister David Cameron’s victory in the House of Commons last week, fully four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus NATO member Turkey and several regional allies, will now be engaged in the fight against ISIS (ISIL/Islamic State/Daesh) in eastern Syria. Following last week’s fatal shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two jihadist sympathizers, US president Barack Obama reassured the United States in a rare Sunday night prime-time address that his administration will continue its intensified airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Syria, increasingly targeting the oil tankers controlled by ISIS that fund its jihadist mission.

Cameron’s team, including foreign minister Philip Hammond, argued that a force of 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian forces would be willing and ready to take on the ISIS threat in the event of a coordinated allied campaign to deploy sustained airstrikes against ISIS, both reducing the terrorist threat to Europeans at home and establishing the conditions for peace abroad (and the Obama administration has more or less echoed this sentiment). That seems optimistic, however, given that ‘radical’ rebels, like ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra quickly overpowered ‘moderate’ rebels like the Free Syrian Army throughout 2012 and 2013.

In reality, there’s no bright line among anti-Assad Sunnis in Syria. Although Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, 75% of Syria’s pre-war population was Sunni, which means there’s a lot of room for variation. Nevertheless, after more than a year of U.S. airstrikes, moderate Syrians (whether 70,000 or 7,000) and Kurdish peshmerga forces have not effectively dislodged ISIS, particularly outside traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria.

Though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is still boosting peace talks in Vienna in early 2016, neither the Assad government nor the anti-Assad rebels have indicated they will join those talks. What’s more, it’s not even clear who would ‘represent’ the anti-Assad rebels, who are fighting as much against each other as they are against Assad.

Even as countries from four continents are running air campaigns in Syria, they are acting in far from a coordinated manner. Tensions are already rising after Turkey downed a Russian military jet late last month, despite repeated warnings that the jet was infringing Russian airspace. Imagine how tense the situation could become if a Russian jet attacks an American one in the increasingly crowded Syrian skies. None of the actors, including Russia or the United States, has any clear strategic plan for an endgame in Syria. Russia still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Assad rules a united postwar Syria, and the United States still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Sunni and Shiite factions can work together to govern Syria — or even Iraq, for that matter.

The descent of the world’s major powers upon Syria was accelerating even before jihadist terrorists left 130 innocent civilians dead in Paris, and the manner in which Syria has now become a proxy war for so many other regional and global actors is starting to resemble the domino trail of alliances and diplomatic errors that began World War I.  It’s irresponsible to argue that the world is plunging into World War III, but the escalations in Syria reflects the same kind of destructive slippery slope that began with the assassination of the heir of a fading empire by a nationalist in what was then a provincial backwater. Continue reading ‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

Why Hollande’s determination could be a game-changer for Syria

French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have a strong record on successful and targeted foreign intervention. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)
French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have a strong record on successful and targeted foreign intervention. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)

With 20 airstrikes on Sunday in the de facto Islamic State/Saesh capital of Raqqa, French president François Hollande made it very clear that he would stay true to his word and launch a ‘merciless war’ against the terrorist camps in Syria controlled by IS/Daesh. Mali Flag IconFrance Flag Iconcentrafrique flagSyria Flag Icon

That may seem like a tall order, especially given the geopolitical conundrums of Syria’s civil war. Russia is also bombing Raqqa and other rebel strongholds, with the explicit goal of boosting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. France, meanwhile, opposes Assad, and Hollande nearly launched airstrikes in 2013 against Assad. The United States, along with France and the United Kingdom, have generally argued that Assad must leave power, and the United States once looked to boost anti-Assad Sunni rebels, some of whom are now allied with IS/Daesh. Now, however, US special forces are on the ground in Syria working with Kurdish peshmerga forces to pressure Raqqa as well. For what it’s worth, Turkey is also boosting the US effort with airstrikes on IS/Daesh, but Turkish forces have also been attacking Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey.

And so on and so on. Last Friday’s attacks on Paris may have simplified the French objective in the region, but it doesn’t make it strategically less messier. Hollande has now made it clear that his goal is to destroy IS/Daesh, not simply to contain it. That makes him, for now, far more hawkish on Syria than either US president Barack Obama or UK prime minister David Cameron. It’s worth remembering that Hollande played a crucial role in bringing Berlin and Athens together for a last-minute bailout deal at the nadir of Greece’s eurozone crisis in July.

The Syrian calculus may also be changing for Obama and Cameron, though. Obama spent nearly a half-hour conferring with Russian president Vladimir Putin over the weekend at the G-20 summit in Turkey, and Hollande is set to meet Obama in person in Washington on November 24, followed by a visit with Putin in Moscow two days later.

An increasingly hawkish France in the Sarkozy-Hollande era

If there’s anyone in world politics today, however, whose record of eliminating jihadist threats and restoring peace in the developing world is decent, it’s Hollande — after at least partially successful operations in Mali and in the Central African Republic.

Throughout most of the world (including France), Hollande is an unpopular and ineffective figure who has neither stood up to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘austerity,’ nor enacted reforms to make the French economy more effective nor lowered France’s persistent unemployment rate. That’s, at least, when his personal love life isn’t making headlines.

But Hollande has developed an impressive record when it comes to engaging and defeating radical jihadists in former French colonies– and in prolonging a new trend of aggressive foreign policy.

His predecessor, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, took office in 2007 with the explicit goal of closer security ties with the United States and the United Kingdom, embracing the once toxic mantle of ‘Atlanticist.’ In 2009, he ended France’s four-decade-long rift with NATO, fully integrating France into NATO’s security regime, and he embraced a muscular, hawkish foreign policy — on Libya and elsewhere.

Perhaps to the surprise of some of the more dovish members of Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), he has embraced the new French assertiveness on the global stage. Even more surprisingly, it’s Laurent Fabius, a long-time Socialist official, who has carried out Hollande’s muscular foreign policy as France’s foreign minister.

Fabius, who served as France’s youngest prime minister in the 1980s under François Mitterrand, bucked his party in 2005 in advocating a non vote against a European constitution. Nevertheless, he comes from the left wing of the party, and he’s run (unsuccessfully) for the party’s presidential nomination.

Mali — restoring a government in the Sahel

In 2012, in northern Mali, the Tuaregs, nomadic Muslims long resentful of the southern elite, were on the verge of breaking away to form their own northern state. The pressure on Mali’s government culminated in a military coup, deposing Mali’s democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Touré and thereby plunging Mali into even greater chaos. By the end of the year, a relatively stable democratic country had become a magnet for international jihadists, including newly-armed Libyan rebels and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Together, the radicals had overtaken both the Malian army and the local Tuareg forces to create a radical Islamist pocket across northern Mali, introducing harsh sharia law and increasingly threatening the southern capital, Bamako.

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RELATED: Despite fears, Mali’s rushed presidential election seems like a success — for now

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Invited by the new government, Hollande sent a 4,000-person force to Mali in January 2013. Within days, French troops controlled the northern city of Timbuktu and, By April, the international jihadist threat in Mali was significantly reduced, and French troops began withdrawing from Mali, as a regional African force took control over regional security. By August 2013, the country held its delayed presidential election, voting Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta into power and restoring Mali back onto a democratic path, tasked with tough negotiations with Tuareg rebels.

A more wide-ranging force, together with national African troops, remained behind to ensure that the international fighters in Mali didn’t stick around to cause mayhem in other countries in the Sahel.

While IBK, as he’s known in Mali, has not been incredibly successful in pacifying the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who continue to clash with Malian forces and are pushing forward to create their own sovereign state of Azawad. That’s not the best potential outcome for Mali, necessarily, but it did prevent Mali — or the wide Sahel — from becoming the kind of powerless vacuum where international jihadist rule can thrive, like in eastern Syria, western Iraq and present-day Libya. Moreover, even as Mali struggles to consolidate a united country, it can do so without having to wage a war against an IS-style caliphate within its own borders.  Pushing aside hand-wringing about the perception of françafrique, the notion that France continues to play a role in its former colonies to perpetuate its own self-interested political and economic control, Hollande’s targeted and narrowly defined mission made Europe and the Sahel safer as a result.

CAR — giving peace a fresh start

A year later, the Central African Republic, another former French colony, was devolving into chaos.

François Bozizé, the CAR’s president since taking power in a 2003 coup, was himself ousted by the Séléka alliance that first took control of the country’s north in November 2012, then took the capital, Bangui, in March 2013, bringing Séléka rebel leader Michel Djotodia to power.

Yet Djotodia, even after dissolving his militia, failed to control the increasingly intense fighting between Christians-dominated ‘anti-balaka’ militia and the Muslim dominated Séléka. With the country descending back into civil war, the UN Security Council introduced a peacekeeping force, and Hollande sent 1,600 French troops to help disarm militias, after refusing an initial request from Bozizé earlier in 2013 to stabilize his regime.

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RELATED: Does Djotodia’s resignation matter in
Central African Republic?

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Isolated from the elites of the Bozizé regime and increasingly from other rebel leaders in his own Séléka alliance, Djotodia stepped down in early 2014, and the country eventually appointed an interim leader, Catherine Samba-Panza.

The French peacekeeping effort hasn’t pacified the CAR enough to allow for elections that have now been delayed numerous times. But it may helped prevent wider violence, or even mass genocide, in central Africa. Again, French forces have kept the CAR from becoming a fully failed state and a vacuum for jihadist forces that might delight at forming a base in central Africa.

Syria — a chance for a genuine political settlement

Neither Mali nor the Central African Republic today are what you might call model countries today, not even by the standards of sub-Saharan Africa. Mali’s democratic restoration remains fragile and the country is still divided on tenuous north-south lines. The Central African Republic still hasn’t held postwar elections, and it could crumble back into violence at any moment.

But by the standards of Western intervention over the last 15 years, it’s hard to think of any greater successes. Certainly not Iraq or Afghanistan after the end of US-led intervention there, and certainly not Libya, which is barely functioning today after Sarkozy and Cameron led a US-backed charge to dislodge Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. US drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen have done little, either, to make those countries safer. Hollande’s record may not be perfect, but there’s at least some cause for hope.

It’s also true that Syria is different and, in many ways, from sub-Saharan Africa, and will be a much more difficult challenge for Hollande or any international coalition to pacify. For a country that’s suffered four years of civil war and brutality on all sides, Syrians may not welcome yet another international player to the mix. Intervention from the United States, Russia, Turkey and others only seems to make things worse for everyday Syrians, bringing just fleeting gains to the pro-Assad or anti-Assad forces of the day.

Hollande, like Obama and Putin, must realize that any military victory in pushing back IS/Daesh will ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory without the kind of political settlement that brings an end to Syria’s hostilities, even if that means pushing Assad from power.

A primer on Raqqa, Islamic State’s so-called ‘capital’

raqqa

Now that the Islamic State/Daesh has taken credit for three major attacks — the downing of a Russian flight over the Sinai peninsula, a double suicide bombing in southern Beirut and the concerted Friday night onslaught in Paris — there’s a growing consensus that the international community is doubling down on concerted efforts to confront the radical Sunni jihadists at their core in Syria.Syria Flag Icon

That began on Sunday afternoon, when French forces hit Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria that IS/Daesh has claimed as its de facto capital, with more than 20 airstrikes. In the aftermath of Friday night’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, French president François Hollande declared that the attacks amounted to an ‘act of war,’ pledging to lead a response that ‘will be pitiless,’ and the French military reaction came even while police still search for one of the alleged perpetrators of Friday’s attacks.

Well before Paris, US officials have been increasingly focused on Raqqa

As the world’s attention now turns from Paris and Beirut to Raqqa, those terrorist attacks seem likely to accelerate what’s been a gradual effort to place pressure on ISIS in Raqqa. US airstrikes last Thursday killed militant Mohammed Emwazi, popularly known as ‘Jihadi John’ in the US media. A Kuwait native who grew up in London before traveling to Syria to fight for IS/Daesh, he appeared in several videotaped beheadings of westerners, proclaiming jihadist slogans in perfect English as he and his allies murdered their victims.

In early July, a series of 16 US airstrikes also targeted Raqqa, with the goal of destroying ISIS strongholds and disrupting transit routes — an attack that killed at least six civilians. News reports suggest that the United States and its allies are gradually preparing a campaign to liberate Raqqa in tandem with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a new coalition of Kurdish, Arab and other Syrian minorities in the country’s northeast, though its strength may be more aspirational than anything else.Formed just last month, it Forces are still a somewhat nebulous group, anchored by the YPG (the Kurdish acronym for the People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish armed peshmerga fighting IS/Daesh), but which also includes Sunni Arabs and, most incredulously, some longtime pro-Assad forces.

US special forces that entered Syria in the last month, in particular, are thought to be spearheading the Raqqa effort. As Vox‘s Zach Beauchamp wrote earlier in October, a successful US-led siege on Raqqa would be difficult but would also call into doubt the Islamic State’s ability to hold, control and govern territory in Syria (or Iraq, for that matter).

Raqqa, in Syria's northeast, is the de facto capital of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate. (BBC)
Raqqa, in Syria’s northeast, is the de facto capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate. (BBC)

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, there have already been calls in the US media to ‘erase’ Raqqa:

Alain Bauer, a leading French criminologist and adviser to officials in Paris, New York, and elsewhere about counter-terror strategies, is among those who believes that ISIS is lashing out precisely because it is under pressure on the ground….

“If we really want to do something, we need to erase Raqqa,” [criminologist Alain] Bauer told The Daily Beast. What keeps this from happening? In Bauer’s opinion, the United States. “Every bombing is a nightmare to negotiate,” he said. “Here’s a target. ‘Oops, there’s a garden there. Oops, there’s a family there. Oops, you cannot destroy this, you cannot destroy that.’”

But ISIS is embedded among the civilian population. Bauer thinks there’s an important distinction. “They are representing the civilian population,” he says, at least those who have remained and sometimes profited from the group’s presence. “They are not enslaving them. And a war is a war.”

But the facts suggest otherwise, and the limited reporting from Raqqa over the past year indicates an urban population terrorized by the Islamic State’s fundamentalist grip. Gruesome public executions are now a routine occurrence, foreign-born militants from Africa and Europe alike (often unable to speak Arabic) mix awkwardly with the local population and jihadists routinely police their moral vision, for example, forcing women to wear niqabs. Though Islamic State certainly has its supporters among the Sunni population, many of Raqqa’s civilians are, like the victims of the Beirut and Paris bombings, victims of Daesh-led terrorism.

How once-secure Raqqa became so notorious

A Vanity Fair report from last October describes a shellshocked city where bakeries no longer produce enough bread, religious police forbid smoking tobacco,photos of models and even swearing, while young children are forced to trawl through garbage in search of valuables that they can sell for money.  Continue reading A primer on Raqqa, Islamic State’s so-called ‘capital’

Why the ‘brosé summit of 2015’ was more about Russia than the United States

US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin share a toast Monday at the United Nations. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin share a toast Monday at the United Nations. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The way the US and international media portrayed Monday evening’s meeting between US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin, you might think that the diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations General Assembly over Syria’s civil war amounted to a fight-to-the-finish struggle for the two countries, both of which are permanent members on the UN Security Council. UNSyria Flag IconRussia Flag IconUSflag

But that’s just not true because the stakes in Syria for the United States are far, far lower. It is tempting to view every disagreement between the United States and Russia as a zero-sum game, with a clear winner and a clear loser, but that’s false.

Here’s why.

Why Syria matters so much to Putin

Consider how important Syria and, in particular, Bashar al-Assad, is to Russia. Assad, these days, doesn’t control much of Syria’s territory, but he does retain power throughout many of the coastal cities where most of Syria’s weary population still resides. That’s important to Moscow because the Syrian coast hosts the only warm-water port for the Russian navy at Tartus.

A look at which groups control Syria, as of September 2015. (Wikipedia)
A look at which groups control Syria, as of September 2015. (Wikipedia)

But it’s so much more.

While the United States continues to project influence on a global basis and while China has expanded its regional reach into south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and even parts of Latin America, Russia’s post-Soviet influence is more limited. The battle lines between Russia and the ‘West’ are no longer Vietnam or Afghanistan or even Poland or Hungary, it’s skirmishes within former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia or fights over influence in central Asia.

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RELATED: One chart that explains Obama-era Middle East policy

RELATED: The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy

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Syria, however, retained the strong ties with Moscow that it developed under Assad’s father Hafez in the 1970s. Outside the former Soviet republics, there is virtually no other country that you could consider anything like a Russian ‘client state,’ with the exception of Syria. That’s a big deal for a country resentful that it has gone from a truly global player — culturally, technologically, politically and economically — to regional chump with fading commodity exports, crumbling physical and social infrastructure and an economy one-tenth that of the US economy.  Continue reading Why the ‘brosé summit of 2015’ was more about Russia than the United States

How Syria’s turmoil is rooted in an early-morning 1994 car crash

bassel

In the wee foggy hours of January 21, 1994, a speeding Mercedes crashed on the highway en route to Damascus International Airport.Syria Flag Icon

Its driver was 31-year-old Bassel al-Assad, the eldest son of Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, and he died instantly. His death scrambled what had been a long-planned succession for Syria’s aging ruler. From an early age, it had always been clear that Hafez was grooming Bassel — by far, the most popular and charismatic of Hafez’s sons — to succeed him.

His death forced Hafez to switch plans, despite more than a decade of work preparing Syria for Bassel’s eventual ascension and preparing Bassel to one day rule Syria with the same grip as his father had.

Bashar al-Assad, Bassel’s younger brother, was immediately recalled from London, where he had lived for two years engaged in post-graduate studies as an ophthalmologist. For the next six years, until his father’s death, Bashar underwent a transformation to prepare to take the reins of the family business.

familyassad
Photo credit to Reuters.

Like Che Guevara in Cuba, Bassel’s face routinely greets everyday Syrians alongside Bashar and Hafez. Or at least it does in what little Syrian territory remains dominated by the Assad regime these days. As Syria’s hell continues through its fourth year, many Syrians must wonder whether their lives would have turned out differently under the other Assad son.

So as Russian fighter jets land at Bassel al-Assad airport in an escalating effort this month to boost the struggling Assad regime, it’s tantalizing to wonder what might have happened if the Latakia airport’s namesake had survived.

As Roula Khalaf wrote for The Financial Times in 2012, no one ever expected Bashar to one day become Syria’s president — least of all, probably, Bashar himself:

“Growing up, Bashar was overshadowed by Bassel,” says Ayman Abdelnour, a former adviser who got to know Assad during his university years. “That seemed to be a complex – he didn’t have the charisma of Bassel, who was sporty, was liked by girls and was the head of the Syrian Computer Society.” Bashar was “shy; he used to speak softly, with a low voice. He never asked about institutions or government affairs.” Assad was also close to his mother, Anisa Makhlouf, whose family played a central part in the regime. “A mama’s boy more than a papa’s boy,” is how one western politician describes the president.

In 2000, ready or not, Bashar assumed the presidency at age 35.

Even before Syria’s civil war began in 2011, the eye doctor-turned-strongman showed signs of weakness. There was an initial period of political freedom in the first year of his regime — though the period became known as the ‘Damascus Spring,’ the term now rankles with irony, and the thaw on political dissent clearly ended by 2002. In the wake of the US military’s overthrow of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the remaining Ba’athist regime in the Middle East, Assad spent much of 2003 and 2004 worried that neoconservatives might attack him next (a fear that was not entirely unfounded).

Bashar’s biggest miscalculation came in Lebanon, where nearly everyone believes Syrian forces assassinated former prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, a galvanizing moment for Lebanon that generated backlash among Lebanese of all backgrounds and religions. Ultimately, the furor over Hariri’s shooting forced Bashar to withdraw the Syrian troops that had occupied much of the country since Lebanon’s own civil war began in 1976.

Continue reading How Syria’s turmoil is rooted in an early-morning 1994 car crash

Kurdish opportunity rises as US airstrikes hit Syria

mayfieldPhoto credit to Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

Guest post by Christopher Skutnik

Most of the public blowback within the US policy debate over Syria’s civil war revolves around who, among the confusing mishmash of anti-Assad rebels, Western governments might possibly aid in the conflict.  USflagSyria Flag Iconkurdistan

Even as the body count climbed and the war crimes mounted, much of the West declared a policy of non-interference. The inability to find a suitable Western-friendly champion is key among the factors that have most restrained the foreign response to Syria, even as US president Barack Obama yesterday ordered the first airstrikes against Islamic State group (الدولة الإسلامية‎) after six weeks of strikes meant to subdue them in northern Iraq.

In 2011, the US Congress introduced a bill placing sanctions on actors committing human rights abuses in Syria, and which simultaneously and explicitly prevented US president Barack Obama from declaring war or otherwise using force against the Syrian regime. Later in 2012, Congress introduced another bill that began exploring ways to ‘…deny or significantly degrade the ability of [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad…to use air power against civilians and opposition groups in Syria….’

Like the one before it, this bill also maintained that ‘the United States ground troops [shall] not be deployed onto Syrian territory.’

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RELATED: Five thoughts on Obama’s ISIS announcement

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The United States was not alone in its reticence. In August 2013, the United Kingdom’s parliament famously voted 285 to 272 against prime minister David Cameron’s push for a British role in any potential American military action against Syria.

This proved to be a ‘two-fer.’ Not only were the British now going to stay out of Syria, but without the legitimacy of multilateralism, Obama was forced to withdraw to the principles that got him elected five years earlier. Aimed at a different war in a different country, Obama famously argued that the US war and occupation in Iraq that began in 2003 was ‘ill-considered’ and ‘unnecessary,’ and was steadfastly preempting political opponents of a possible response to Syria by proclaiming a ‘no boots on the ground’ policy. 

In doing so, the leader of the strongest liberal democracy in the world was leaving the victims of sarin gas attacks; the moderate, if nebulous, Free Syrian Army (FSA, الجيش السوري الحر‎); and the innocents on the periphery stuck between a vice grip of growing religious extremism and a government prone to attacking villages with helicopter gunships.

Fast forward to 2014.
Continue reading Kurdish opportunity rises as US airstrikes hit Syria

Five thoughts on Obama’s ISIS announcement

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So much for US president Barack Obama’s statement last week* that the United States doesn’t have a strategy to combat the Islamic State group (الدولة الإسلامية‎) in Syria, which has taken control of eastern Syria and, more alarmingly, large parts of northern and western Iraq.USflag

In a stunning address for a president whose 2008 election owed greatly to his stand against the US war, Obama announced that he would lead a broad coalition to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ Islamic State, and it will include airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria and the deployment of 425 more ‘military advisers’ to Iraq.

Obama compared the new US military action against Islamic State in the same category as the Obama administration’s targeted efforts in Yemen and Somalia and against al-Qaeda. Furthermore, he warned that the operations would not involve combat troops or significant ground forces. In that sense, it’s true that Obama’s latest mission against Islamic State is more like its previous efforts against Islamic radicals elsewhere and less like the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But that’s not the whole story. As the Obama administration’s efforts continue to unfold, here are five points worth keeping in mind that explain why the United States is entering arguably its fourth war (Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) in the Middle East since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, what’s at stake going forward, and what the future might hold for the United States and the region.  Continue reading Five thoughts on Obama’s ISIS announcement

Was the Syrian election more successful than Egypt’s?

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A month ago, I scoffed at the idea of holding a presidential election in Syria at a time of civil war, with a pre-determined outcome, while millions of Syrians are living outside the country as refugees, and when fighting is still raging throughout much of Syria.Syria Flag Icon

But a quick look at the turnout indicates that it may have been hasty to discount the election as an exercise in futility — especially coming so soon after a flawed Egyptian presidential election where apathy reigned.

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RELATED: Why is Syria holding a presidential election in the middle of a civil war?

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There’s no doubt that the Syrian vote fails by any standard of a free and fair election — by American terms, by European terms, by Indian terms, by Indonesian terms. There was no question that Bashar al-Assad (pictured above), who has been Syria’s president since 2000, would win the vote, just like his father, Hafez al-Assad, remained in power since 1971, typically with somewhat predictable support:

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Still, it’s incredible that Syria, where parts of the country still remain under rebel control, the race officially commanded turnout of 73.42%. If those numbers are to be trusted, and that’s a huge question, it means that Syrian turnout, at a time of war, was around 25% higher than turnout in Egypt’s presidential election last week. Stunningly, there are reports of thousands of Syrian refugees living across the border in Lebanon streaming back into Syria earlier this week to take part in the elections. Now, there are also reports that Syrian workers have been essentially forced en masse onto buses to vote:

“Of course I’m voting for Assad. First of all, I can’t not go vote because at work we’re all taken by bus to the polling booth. Second, I don’t know these other candidates. And also, I live here and have no options to leave – I don’t know what would happen if I don’t vote for Assad,” said a teacher in Damascus, contacted on Skype.

But if the point of the election was a show of strength and mobilization among Syrians living within territory that Assad currently controls, the Syrian regime can credibly claim some kind of victory, if not necessarily a democratic mandate.

Whatever the truth, it’s more than the ‘great big zero’ that US secretary of state John Kerry declared it yesterday in a hasty  trip to Lebanon, which is still stuck in the middle of a presidential crisis that began last month and that has continued since former president Michel Suleiman left office on May 25.   Continue reading Was the Syrian election more successful than Egypt’s?

Why is Syria holding a presidential election in the middle of a civil war?

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It’s always been somewhat baffling to me why authoritarian rulers and dictators go through the motions of sham elections. Syria Flag Icon

The voters inside the country know better than anyone else that the elections aren’t a real choice, and in many cases, boycotting the vote or voting for the ‘wrong’ candidate, if a choice is even permitted, can carry perilous results.

International observers aren’t really fooled, either. With the proven work of folks like the National Democratic Institute and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, there’s a 21st century international standard for free and fair elections, and the NDA, OSCE and other similar groups have a thoroughgoing process for certifying the sanctity of elections in developing democracies.

Furthermore, in the world of social media and 24-hour news, it’s harder to carry out the kind of widespread fraud. That doesn’t mean elections are perfect. In Venezuela, the collapse of the state, governing institutions and chavismo mean that a totally fair election is almost impossible. But there’s nonetheless a limit — even with a decade’s worth of dirty tricks, Nicolás Maduro managed only a narrow win in April 2013, for example.

So why is Syrian president Bashar al-Assad pushing forward with an election on June 3?

In case you were wondering about the outcome, here’s a chart of every presidential election in Syria since Hafez al-Assad came to power in a military coup in 1971:

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In each of the prior ‘elections,’ Syrian voters were presented with a yes-or-no choice on the incumbent, either Hafez al-Assad or, since his death in 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad.  Continue reading Why is Syria holding a presidential election in the middle of a civil war?

Did Assad win the Syrian civil war this week?

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It’s beginning to look a lot like the war in Syria is coming to an end — or, at a minimum, the nature of the two-year conflict is transforming into something quite different from what it was just a few days ago.freesyriaSyria Flag Icon

As a freak snowstorm covered much of the Middle East, threatening thousands of refugees from exposure to the cold, the Syrian opposition crumbled into opposing camps after the Islamic Front ( ‏الجبهة الإسلامية‎, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah), a merger of seven jihadist rebel groups created in November, pushed opposition general Salim Idris out of power earlier this week from his perch as chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army (الجيش السوري الحر‎, al-Jaysh as-Sūrī al-Ḥurr) and executed several other moderate leaders in the Free Syrian Army.  Idris, who was in Qatar at the time of the jihadist push, reportedly returned to Turkey, not to Syria.

The merger last month transformed the Islamic Front, whose most important member is the Salafist-backed and Saudi-funded Ahrar ash-Sham (حركة أحرار الشام الإسلامية ), into the largest rebel fighting unit within the Syrian opposition, with up to 45,000 fighters (compare that to between 20,000 and 40,000 fighters in the Free Syria Army).  While the Islamic Front represents a much more pro-jihadist coalition than the moderate leadership of the Free Syrian Army, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s still separate from the most radical al Qaeda affiliates that are also fighting the Assad regime.  But though the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front, جبهة النصرة لأهل الشام‎), which itself has up to another 15,000 fighters, is not a member of the Islamic Front, the two work closely together.  Another al Qaeda-affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام‎) boasts up to 15,000 more fighters.  It’s still unclear whether the Islamic Front will supplant, oppose or cooperate with ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.

Another 40,000 Kurdish fighters operate in the relatively autonomist Kurdish territory in the far northeast of Syria.

No matter how much control Idris and the moderates still retain over the Free Syrian Army (and, well, it doesn’t seem like much), it’s clear to everyone that the opposition is now nearly as much at war with itself as with the Ba’athist regime of president Bashar al-Assad.  The joint US and UK decision to suspend non-lethal aid to the northern Syria opposition reflects how seriously power has shifted away from the moderate FSA leadership and toward the more radical Islamic Front– US policymakers were probably distraught to hear that US supplies have now fallen under the control of the Islamic Front. (For the record, this is exactly why many policymakers opposed the call from John McCain, US senator from Arizona, to arm Syria’s opposition with fully lethal aid).

The week’s amazing putsch within the Syria opposition follows confirmation from a UN report that chemical weapons have been used at least four times in Syria’s civil war, including the massive attack in Ghouta last August, where over 1,000 Syrians died from exposure to sarin gas.  Nonetheless, Assad continues to cooperate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the OPCW is optimistic it can still meet the first December 31 deadline for the removal of the first trance of chemical weapons.

So how does the geopolitical stage look vis-à-vis the Syrian opposition these days? Continue reading Did Assad win the Syrian civil war this week?

Nobel by elimination: OPCW was the only worthy recipient

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The committee awarding the Nobel Peace Prize historically doesn’t shy away from making political statements through its award — and this year was no different.nobel-peace-prize

In retrospect, despite the Western media swoon over 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban and recovered in the United Kingdom to become a living symbol of the fight for women’s rights in the Muslim world, it makes a lot of sense that the Nobel committee would want to highlight the fight against chemical weapons, given that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war in August earlier this year was the worst chemical weapons attack since their use in the 1980s by Iraq.

Upholding the international ban on chemical weapons drew a very reluctant US president Barack Obama to the brink of military engagement in the Middle East.  In terms of war and peace over the past 12 months, there’s no denying that chemical weapons have playing a tragic starring role:

“The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law,” said Thorbjoern Jagland, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, in announcing the award. “Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons.”

(Honorable mention should go to Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor who’s risked his life to fight rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

Even if the Nobel committee’s goal should have been clear in retrospect, it was always going to be a challenge to identify an individual worthy of receiving the award.

Maybe Russian president Vladimir Putin, who took up an offhand comment from US secretary of state John Kerry to broker a United Nations Security Council deal whereby Syria would identify and begin eliminating its chemical weapons stockpiles.  But it may have been the US threat of force that pushed Putin to make the offer more than Putin’s natural instinct for peace.

Moreover, Putin presides over an awfully authoritarian state, and his record on press freedom, LGBT rights, civil rights for minorities and the Chechnya conflict hardly screams out ‘Nobel laureate.’  It was always more likely that Alexei Navalny, the crusading opposition figure, would win the prize.  Or Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the human rights activist and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Or Lilia Shianova, the director of Golos, Russia’s independent voting rights organization. Or Svetlana Gannushkina, who’s been a leading figure in providing humanitarian and legal aid in Chechnya.

It certainly couldn’t be Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who’s leading one side of an increasingly intractable civil war and whose regime was responsible for the August sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus.  Despite Assad’s apparent and swift cooperation with chemical weapons inspectors, he’s still engaged in a bloody fight against a mixed force of Sunni rebels and other opponents who want to end his family’s Alawite regime, which has governed Syria with an iron fist since 1971.  It also couldn’t be any of Syria’s rebel forces, some of whom are aligned with the most radical Islamist terror networks in the world.

Nor could it be US president Barack Obama, who already won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and his administration’s response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria was bumbling at best.  That may be the nature of realpolitik, and the end result is probably beyond what Obama and Kerry ever expected would be possible.  But it was hardly a shining moment for US foreign policy.

Moreover, both the United States and Russia have so far failed to destroy their own chemical weapons stockpiles, a fact that the Nobel committee acidly noted in awarding the prize.

So who was left? The chemical weapons inspectors themselves.

Through the process of elimination, the Nobel committee decided to award the prize to the entity whose very job is the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and throughout the world.

That’s the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (Ahmet Uzumcu, the OPCW’s director-general pictured above), a 16-year-old organization based in The Hague in the Netherlands and the watchdog tasked with keeping the world’s countries in compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention — and which is now playing the crucial role of effecting a deal that should eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons capability by mid-2014, if all goes according to plan.  The challenge in Syria represents the most high-profile challenge for the OPCW since its creation but, so far, the OPCW is rising to the task.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an organization sometimes falls like a wet blanket, even though it’s happened 24 times since 1901.  This year’s award follows the decision last year to award the prize to the European Union for its role in becalming the European continent over the past seven decades.

Giving the award to the OPCW instead of Malala (or even Putin or another individual) didn’t necessarily provide a picture-perfect, feel-good catharsis.  But it rightly shines a spotlight on an unheralded protagonist at a time when the OPCW’s work is far from complete — even if it succeeds in Syria, the world won’t be rid of chemical weapons.

Photo credit to AFP / Bas Czerwinski.

John McCain is the Jimmy Carter of the right: a free radical running his own shadow diplomacy

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If you thought the idea of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in The New York Times was insufferable, don’t worry, comrades — US senator John McCain of Arizona is coming soon to a Pravda newsstand near you.freesyria Syria Flag IconUSflag

Typically, US foreign policy is conducted at a very concentrated level among a top coterie of constitutional officers and White House staffers.  The 535-member US Congress likes to get in on the act too, from time to time, just as it did when US president Barack Obama called for a congressional vote on potential military action against Bashar al-Assad in punishment for his regime’s use of chemical warfare on August 21.

But sometimes, there are free agents who, by benefit of their success in public life, can conduct a virtual shadow foreign policy.  For over three decades, the most exceptional example has been former president Jimmy Carter, whose post-presidential diplomacy has caused fits for many of his successors in the Oval Office, including Democrats like Obama and Bill Clinton as well as Republicans like George W. Bush.

But even before his failed 2008 presidential run, McCain has increasingly become another Jimmy Carter — in his willingness to engage in shadow diplomacy, often to the dismay of both the Bush and Obama administrations.  Except Carter is liberal and dovish and McCain is conservative and hawkish.

Carter honed his approach as a mercenary-for-peace in the 1990s, when he attempted to use his special status as a former US president to broker peace everywhere from Haiti to Sudan.  He visited Cuban president Fidel Castro in 2002, despite the fact that US-Cuban relations have been strained since the 1959 Cuban revolution and the 1963 missile crisis, and he endorsed the electoral process in Venezuela’s 2004 recall election that kept Hugo Chávez, another anti-American leader, in office.  Carter spoke out early and often against the Bush administration’s push to invade Iraq in 2003 to a rare degree among former US presidents, and he remained a critic of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy throughout the 2000s.  Carter, most recently, has criticized the Obama administration for the use of unmanned drones in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, and for keeping the Guantánamo Bay prison open for detainees suspected of terrorism.

You might think that Carter’s approach is a brilliant way to nudge US foreign policy toward more peaceful outcomes — he won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize largely on the basis of his post-presidential work.  But you might also think that Carter’s approach complicates often delicate situations by introducing another (unwelcome) cook to the kitchen, and Carter’s diplomacy typically causes more frustration than enthusiasm from within the White House.

Likewise, the Obama administration won’t welcome McCain’s latest move, which will raise the decibel level with what’s certainly likely to be a provocative Pravda piece.  It comes two days after McCain saw the need to release his own statement about Moscow’s mayoral elections.  (Isn’t that the U.S. state department’s job rather than the ranking member of the US Senate’s armed services committee?)

Neither Carter nor McCain would exactly welcome the comparison — Carter said during the 2008 election campaign that McCain was ‘milking every possible drop of advantage’ from his military record as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and McCain a year later called Carter the worst president of the 20th centuryContinue reading John McCain is the Jimmy Carter of the right: a free radical running his own shadow diplomacy