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→
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve seen plenty of commentary online since Friday night criticizing the American and European media (and their audiences) for ignoring Thursday’s terrorist attacks in Beirut while focusing their attention solely on Friday’s deadlier Paris attacks.
But, as I write tomorrow for The National Interest, as the world mourns the victims of both attacks, there’s a risk that the lessons of the Beirut blasts (by far the worst since the beginning of the civil war in neighboring Syria) will go unheeded.
Just as the Paris attacks are changing the nature of the Western response to ISIS/Daesh, so should the Beirut attacks change the nature of Western engagement with Lebanon.
Recognizing the humanity of the victims in Lebanon is really just the first step, because the real courage among policymakers is to adjust to the post-attack Beirut with more support politically, economically and morally.
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.
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).
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.
Ahmed Chalabi, known to most Americans as the Iraqi exile who shepherded faulty intelligence to the Bush administration that became the basis for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, died today at age 71 of a heart attack.
Chalabi died in his home in Baghdad.
Though Iraq today is as clear a candidate for failed state as anywhere in the world, that obituaries will dutifully report that fact — Chalabi died at home in Baghdad — is perhaps the most salient element of Chalabi’s checkered legacy. No single Iraqi national was more responsible for bringing together the elements that would topple Saddam Hussein’s brutal Baathist regime in Iraq.
It’s true, of course, that Chalabi was a corrupt and shadowy figure, and you could have suspected that from the 1980s onward when he fled Jordan amid charges of bank fraud and embezzlement from the Petra Bank that Chalabi founded and ran throughout the decade.
It’s also true that Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC, المؤتمر الوطني العراقي) never had any true grassroots following in Iraq during the Saddam era. When Chalabi finally returned to Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, he quickly found that Iraq’s Shiites turned to figures who hadn’t fled into exile for decades — religious authorities like Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr in the 2000s and Ammar al-Hakim in the 2010s, all of whom had far more credibility with everyday Iraqis.
It’s equally true that Chalabi was one of the most vocal advocates for the ‘de-Baathification’ process that disbanded Iraq’s national military and excluded many Sunni figures (not all of whom were necessarily sympathetic to Saddam) from Iraq’s new government. That decision is now viewed as perhaps the most destabilizing thing that Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority would do in Iraq. Chalabi, who hoped to narrow the political competition in post-Saddam Iraq, helped create the sense of alienation among Iraqi’s Sunnis that would, in turn, lead to the sectarian conflict and civil war of 2006 and 2007. In an interview last year with Al Monitor, even Chalabi agreed that his vision for a democratic Iraq hadn’t materialized, though he mostly blamed the United States for that:
Iraq is now in a very difficult situation. This is not what we had hoped for when we worked to liberate the country from the regime of [former President] Saddam Hussein. However, what happened was not a surprise.
What happened could have been avoided. The fundamental problem lies in the fact that the United States was working in contrast to what we were working on, and what we had planned. The United States went in the direction of announcing an occupation, while our goal (in the Iraqi opposition), according to an agreement before the start of military operations in 2003, was to form a sovereign national Iraqi government that was recognized by a decision from countries in the [UN] Security Council. [This government would] be committed to holding free elections, so that it could subsequently ratify a constitution.
And yes, it’s true that as Washington became increasingly disenchanted with Chalabi, he turned to Iran as his patron. US policymakers pinned their hopes on other Shiite leaders, like Ayad Allawi, a London-based exile who founded the Iraqi National Accord in 1990, and eventually Nouri al-Maliki, the leader of the Islamic Dawa Party (حزب الدعوة الإسلامية). Allawi proved to have as little grassroots support as Chalabi, and he lasted less than a year as prime minister. Maliki proved to be a far more skilled politician than Allawi, but his initial success as a unifying nationalist in the 2009 elections gave way to an increasingly sectarian administration that excluded prominent Sunnis from the vice-presidency and key ministries and that became increasingly alienated from US officials. Disappointment with Iraq’s squabbling politicians was so bad that, after the 2013 elections, Chalabi incredulously became a candidate for prime minister in 2014 before Islamic Dawa and its allies eventually coalesced around Haider al-Abadi. To the end, Chalabi scrambled to win over allies from any community, religious or secular, Kurdish or Arab, Sunni or Shiite, in his plan to ride to Iraq’s rescue as the man with a plan to crush the jihadist ISIS/Daesh/Islamic State. Continue reading Chalabi’s legacy, for good and for bad, is a post-Saddam Iraq→
Though there’s plenty to be pessimistic about in the five months since Turkey’s last parliamentary election in June, the result in today’s repeat snap elections is perhaps the best possible outcome for the various domestic and international actors with a state in Turkey’s continued stability.
The Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party), the conservative Islamist party that has dominated Turkish politics since 2002, scored the most crushing victory in its history — more than when it initially came to power and more than its prior peak in the 2011 elections. That’s despite a turbulent election campaign marred by an early October suicide blast in the capital city of Ankara, the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the modern Turkish republic.
Though the AKP will not win the two-thirds majority that it hoped for to enact the constitutional changes that president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to rebalance powers away from the national assembly and to the presidency, the result gives the AKP a clear mandate to govern without seeking a coalition partner. The AKP’s path to a majority victory wasn’t pretty, and there’s a compelling case that Erdoğan has seriously damaged his legacy and, he further undermined the rule of law, fair elections, internal security and press freedom over the past five months. But the victory means that Turkey will not face a third election in the spring and all the destabilization that another months-long campaign period would mean.
Most surprisingly, the AKP managed its overwhelming victory while the leftist, Kurdish-interest Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP, People’s Democratic Party) still won enough support to win seats in the national assembly. That feels like something of a miracle, given the increasingly tense atmosphere across southeastern Turkey, where polling took place under conditions of near civil war between Turkish military forces and the radical guerrilla group, the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party).
While HDP leader attorney Selahattin Demirtaş has called for a peaceful approach to the fight for greater Kurdish autonomy, AKP officials, including Erdoğan and prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have tried to tie the party to the more militant PKK as a years-long ceasefire, the product of advanced peace talks between the Turkish government and PKK leaders, unravelled in July in the wake of a suicide bombing in Suruç (and attributed to the jihadist ISIS/Islamic State/Daesh). Turkey’s hurdle rate for winning seats in the national parliament is 10%. That means, with around 10.6% of the vote, the HDP is entitled to 59 seats, but with just 9.99%, the HDP would have won exactly zero seats. The latter outcome, just five months after the HDP celebrated the first time an expressly Kurdish party won seats in the Turkish assembly, would have greatly undermined Demirtaş’s argument that Turkish Kurds can work through the democratic system for greater autonomy, self-government and other minority rights.
It’s certainly not the outcome Erdoğan would have been hoping for because, had the AKP taken those 59 seats, it would have the elusive two-thirds majority Erdoğan has sought since winning the Turkish presidency last August. In the long run, however, even if Erdoğan dislikes it, it’s much better that the Kurdish minority feels like it can benefit through democratic participation. Continue reading Turkey’s election result the best possible outcome→
Since the initial June parliamentary elections in Turkey, the country has weathered more instability than at any other period since the Islamist Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) came to power.
On the eve of fresh elections this weekend, consider all that’s happened since the June elections when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority:
Coalition talks failed between prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the two secular opposition parties that were most likely to support an AKP-led government.
Since 2011, the value of the lira has fallen by 50% against the U.S. dollar and Turkey’s once galloping economic development is slowing — to just a projected 3.2% in 2015.
A suicide bombing on July 20 in the southern city of Suruç killed 33 people. In response, Kurdish forces attacked Turkish police after Turkish officials downplayed the need to secure areas of southeastern Turkey that are most heavily populated by the Kurdish minority.
Turkish forces responded to the Suruç attack by joining the military effort against ISIS/Islamic State/Daesh, the Sunni radical group that has extended its ‘caliphate’ across eastern Syria and western Iraq.
Turkish forces also used the Suruç attack to wage a much more aggressive attack against the militant Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party), escalating a conflict that had previously been working its way toward a peaceful settlement between Turkey’s government and the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan.
Another suicide bombing on October 10 in the Turkish capital of Ankara at a peace rally became the deadliest terrorist attack in modern Turkish history, further polarizing Turkish voters who alternative pointed fingers at ISIS, the government and the PKK.
Critical media voices have been harassed or prosecuted by a government whose record on press freedom was already deteriorating.
In the June elections, the AKP won just 256 seats in the Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi (Grand National Assembly), 20 short of a majority. It was the first time since the AKP first came to power in the 2002 elections that it failed to win a majority, scuttling Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s to consolidate power in the Turkish presidency after won Turkey’s first-ever direct election to the mostly ceremonial office last summer.
The AKP fell so low because, for the first time in Turkish history, a pro-Kurdish party, the leftist Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP, People’s Democratic Party), ran for election on a unified list and won enough support to meet the 10% electoral hurdle for winning seats in the National Assembly. With the HDP taking 80 seats, it made it that much more difficult for the AKP to reach an absolute majority. Continue reading A deadlocked assembly could mean a third election in Turkey→