The ISIS Crisis

The Middle East is a complex, complicated area mired in sectarian power struggles—struggles of which most Americans have absolutely no concept or understanding, and that includes many of our policymakers, past and present. Furthermore, many of our past interventions there have done little more than create more chaos in the region. President Obama is right to take his time figuring out a strategy. America cannot and should not go it alone; we need our NATO allies. But more than the involvement of NATO and other European allies, we need that of Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, yes, even Iran who is no friend of ISIS (now going by IS) and has already been involved in the fight against them. All of these countries have a stake in the outcome of these regional crises, and there are many—ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to unrest in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.

To place American soldiers on the ground in Syria or Iraq, without a clear strategy or end game (e.g. – How do we define a “win”?) is irresponsible and short-sighted. Furthermore, who do we trust? Within the various militia and rebel groups fighting in the region and against ISIS, there are numerous “bad guys,” fighters who hate the West but would align with us to advance their cause. However, once that alliance has ended, they would turn on us with the weapons we supplied them. If we intervene in Syria, we are essentially assisting the brutal Bashar Al-Assad regime (whom we’ve been railing against and trying to force out of power) as well as aligning with Iran and Hezbollah, both Syrian allies. See? It’s complicated.

There is no easy, quick, or cheap solution–military engagement is expensive. (It is striking that somehow this cash-strapped nation always has money for war; for education, healthcare, and infrastructure—meh, not so much.) Dropping bombs and placing more American soldiers on the ground in harm’s way should not be the only solutions. Remember, our soldiers represent about 1% of the U.S. population so once again, very few Americans will bear the burden of these armed interventions. Military personnel deserve to have their Commander-in-Chief and congresspersons deliberate and discuss strategy with cool heads, not the hysterical “bomb, bomb, bomb” mantra that so often spews mindlessly from the mouths of seemingly war-hungry legislators.

Perhaps, as Jeffrey Sachs suggests in his article below, Let the Middle East Fight Its Own War on ISIS, the U.S. should put greater effort into helping solve the pervasive problems of “poverty, hunger, drought, and unemployment” in the region. This would do more to heal and strengthen these countries and create goodwill towards the United States than dropping bombs on them ever will.

Below are some related articles with brief excerpts from each.

The Way We Were

In short, some of the problems that dominate today’s headlines are partly due to local forces for which neither Clinton, Bush, nor Obama are directly responsible. But many of them also reflect specific foreign-policy blunders made by one or more U.S. leaders, and the travails of 2014 are in many ways a delayed reaction to two decades of bad policy choices.

Let the Middle East Fight Its Own War on ISIS

If the US had a real strategy for national success, we would let the Middle East face and resolve its own crises, and demand a UN framework for action. We would team up not with NATO, but with the UN Security Council, and put others (for once!) into the lead. We would actually mobilize to solve the real problems facing the region: poverty, hunger, drought, and unemployment. Those are the crises that at the end of the day cause men and boys to fling their lives into useless and suicidal slaughter. If just once in our times US politicians had the bravery to build coalitions to improve the lives of the people through development rather than through bombs, the US public would be amazed to see how much agreement and goodwill could quickly generate. Instead we head to war.

Obama’s Speech on ISIS, in Plain English

And sure, ISIS does deserve it. The group is a nasty collection of slavers, rapists, thieves, throat-slitters, and all-around psychopaths. The trouble is: so are the people fighting ISIS, the regimes in Tehran and Damascus that will reap the benefits of the war the president just announced. They may be less irrational and unpredictable than ISIS. But if anything, America’s new unspoken allies in the anti-ISIS war actually represent a greater “challenge to international order” and a more significant “threat to America’s core interests” than the vicious characters the United States will soon drop bombs on.

The question before the nation is, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?”

That was the question the speech left unanswered. And the ominous suspicion left behind is that the question was unanswered because it is unanswerable—at least, not answerable in any terms likely to be acceptable to the people watching the speech and paying the taxes to finance the fight ahead.

ISIS threat to U.S. mostly hype

ISIS has Americans worried. Two-thirds of those surveyed in a recent Pew Research poll said they consider the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to be a “major threat” to this country. But are such fears really justified?

Despite the impression you may have had from listening to U.S. officials in recent weeks, the answer is probably not really.

Yes, Americans should always be mindful of the threats posed by extremists. But as the case of U.S. citizens in Somalia suggests, Syria could very well end up being a graveyard for Americans fighting there rather than a launch pad for attacks on the United States

Obama’s Illegal War

The United States has used unlawful force persistently since 9/11. Rather than stem terrorism, it exacerbates it. In February, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) asked the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, “Is al Qaeda on the run and on the path to defeat?” The answer: “No, it is morphing and — and franchising itself and not only here but other areas of the world.”

To Syria, or not to Syria? That is the question…

As I watch with detached interest over the extended hand-wringing over what to do about Syria, I can’t help but think of Kosovo.

Just a little less than 11 years ago, I ended up in Kosovo through a string of rather odd events. Without going into boring detail, suffice it to say one day I was living in relative comfort in Germany, and the next I was scurrying out in sub-zero temperature in the wee hours the morning to … well, wee.

For those unfamiliar with the Kosovo War, here’s a little background information. This will give you a lot of the political background, but what’s important to remember that we, along with our NATO allies, went into Kosovo in 1999 to intervene in an ongoing civil war (sounding familiar yet?).

By the time I got to Camp Bondsteel in late 2002, although we were ramping down our activities there (with an eye toward moving on Iraq), it didn’t appear we had done much “delivering.”  Camp Bondsteel, then referred to as the biggest city in Kosovo, was run completely on oil generators. That’s because – more than four years after victory had been declared – the Kosovars got no more than four hours of electricity a day. No one knew when those four hours would come, of if they would come in one big chunk or in smaller chunks of anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more. This made it extremely difficult to live anything resembling a normal life, or at least what we know as normal. Legend had it that some contractor had been paid several million dollars to stand back up the electrical grid but the money had long since vanished with no functioning grid to replace it and it appeared no one was making a great effort to locate either.

And so, the Kosovars went about their daily business, hurriedly cooking dinner and doing other electric-centric activities whenever the opportunity presented itself.  Yes, some Kosovars, no doubt, had gas or oil generators as well, but as the U.S. Army was the largest employer in the area, the number of folks who could afford fuel were few in number. You see, the U.S. and U.N hired no Serbians (for obvious reasons), and at least KBR only hired one person per family/household. There were relatively few established businesses left; because of roads were in such bad repair and the weather so dismal, the largest cottage industry was the pressure washer car wash. It was nothing to see cars abandoned alongside the road; the locals would drive their cars until they ran out of gas, then return when they came up with enough money to refuel. I don’t recall seeing anything other than desolate hoop-ties there during my six-month tour, though I do recall pulling up beside a rather interesting homemade vehicle. Years of hardship had made these people nothing if not resourceful. I purchased three beautiful area rugs by flashlight that I still have and treasure to this day. I can only say luck was on my side.

I don’t necessarily get into the politics of these types of things, because I find the people far more interesting. However, even as not-much-of-a-student-of-history, even I can see the pattern Kosovo represents: with the exception of the Allied areas of Europe, pretty much every country we’ve gone in to “deliver” we’ve left them in the same or worse shape than we found them: Vietnam, the Philippines, Iraq, Somalia, Grenada, Afghanistan… you name it. So now we want to go into Syria to do … more of the same?

One could be encouraged that some members of Congress are pushing for a clear strategy, both in terms of engagement and exit. I am dubious of this, as I clearly remember the question being asked “How much will reconstruction in Iraq cost?” and the answer being “Nothing. They have significant oil reserves to fund their own reconstruction.”  And how many billions of dollars later is it still a barren wasteland, with untold volumes of antiquities lost for the ages (in some looters’ basements and vaults, no doubt)?

There is a part of me that tells me something must be done to help these people. However, I’m not at all convinced we are the ones to do it. Staring down the barrel of a 25% Reduction in Force in the Department of Defense over the next four years, and seeing what a war-weary force we have after a decade of war that yielded – at best – a net of zero, I can’t help but think that we may need to sit this one out. Let someone else handle it. Maybe this time we need to think about saving ourselves first. This might well be the first time in history when we aren’t in a position to help, or simply the first time we realize it. Either way, I hope our leadership will take a look a long look at history before making a final decision, or they we will be destined to repeat it.

And here, for your viewing pleasure, is an unclassified aerial photo of Camp Bondsteel, the largest city in Kosovo. Think about it.

Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo

Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo

Next week: Memories of the People of Kosovo

Update on Syria

New polls released last week show that the large majority of Americans don’t think the US should get involved with Syria- an overwhelming 68% of those polled say the US should stay out. Only 24% said the US should intervene.  Seems that John McCain’s surprise visit and his making the rounds at think tanks and political talk shows isn’t convincing anyone that ‘he knows who the good guys are’.

With the US and Russia attempting to organize talks between the opposition and Assad, the opposition is refusing to participate. George Sabra, head of the National Coalition, said that what is happening in Syria has ‘shut the door’ to any negotiations. Just last week, the rebels lost the city of Qusayr to Assad forces (which has been refreshed with fighters from Hezbollah). The rebels are refusing to come to the table until the West agrees to arm them, stating that negotiating from a weakened position is not a real negotiation, and the playing field must be level again before they will talk.

Violence from the conflict is spilling over in to Lebanon, with one person dying after  a protest in front of the Iranian embassy in Beirut. Hezbollah has sent fighters and support for the Assad government, increasing the gains made on the ground by the national forces.

Things inside the country are getting worse- the UN is currently asking for $5 billion in aid to help Syrian refugees, and predicts that almost 1 out of every two Syrians need help. 10 million people need aid, and the refugee population is expected to double to 3.45 million in the coming months. Meanwhile, foreign fighters inside Syria are taking hardline positions, recently executing a teenage boy in front of his family for ‘insulting the prophet’.

As Syria Burns

Big news this Memorial Day. As the US stops to BBQ and remember its fallen Vets, the situation in Syria is still one of civil war. However, the Foreign minister of Syria, Walid Muallem, said that Syria would agree ‘in principle’ to attend Geneva talks! The round of talks (called Geneva 2) will take place next month, and were a joint proposal by the US and Russia. What do these talks mean? Well, the Syrian National Coalition (the organized part of the opposition) said they were willing to participate, on the condition that Assad step down. Assad so far has refused to step aside or leave the country.  The talks haven’t even been scheduled yet, due to what Russia is calling a ‘lack of unity within the opposition’.


The Syrian National Coalition is meeting in Istanbul, Turkey currently, and has yet to ‘officially’ reach a decision on whether or not to join in the talks. If they refuse, there will be little chance in holding them. John Kerry and his Russian counter part, Sergey Lavrov, are to meet in Paris today to continue to discuss the Syrian situation.

There seems to be little chance to end Syria’s 26 month war with Assad staying in power. Either he will step down (not likely), be overthrown (a chance), the opposition will fail (perhaps possible), or the war will continue to drag on in its current form. With over 80,000 dead and over 1.5 million displaced, the situation in Syria is tragic, and not likely to get any better any time soon.

A $60 Million Dollar Band-aid for Syria

Recently, lawmakers on the Hill, along with Russia, became quite upset with Kerry and the Obama administration for the announcement that 6o million in ‘non-lethal’ aid would be provided to the Syrian rebels. Things in Syria have deteriorated rapidly in the last few months, which is surprising considering how things were already pretty terrible. In the last few days, the Syrian rebels took a base but lost an airport road. Damascus has been the site of heavy fighting, and the number of Syrian refugees is predicted to hit one million this week. The UN is scrambling for funds to provide care for the massive numbers of men, women, and children that have fled the fighting.

The Obama administration has been criticized by many on both sides for lack of action on Syria. However, I have argued before that Obama is wise to not actively arm the opposition. Mainly because arming rebels is a bad idea. You can’t just arm your favorite rebels, you can’t control the flow of arms once they enter the country, and as long as the home government has support of other nations it just drags stalemates out longer. In response to Kerry’s announcement that the US would supply non-lethal aid (eg not guns, but everything else), Russia said the US was interfering and prolonging the destruction of Syria, and the rebels said “Hey, it took you 7 months to decide to give us some band-aids? WE WANT GUNS!”

Assad, the dictator that refuses to step down, seems more than willing to continue the destruction and has accused the US and the UK of supplying ‘terrorists’. He refuses to negotiate with the rebels. The Free Syrian Army, however, seem to be losing civilian support, as local leaders of cities and towns within Syria struggle to establish some form of government to keep basic services going among the warfare.

The UN is still trying to broker peace, but as long as Russia continues to support and protect Assad, things will not change. At the moment, both sides are waging fierce battles for control over Syria. What the future holds is more refugees, more war, and the eventual total destruction of the country. The stalemate will only break if the US decides to really arm the rebels or if Russia decides that protecting Assad becomes to costly. Unfortunately for Syria, neither of those outcomes seem likely.


Why Obama Is Smart on Syria

For those of you who don’t know, Syria is rather tragic right now. Since the start of protests in January of 2011 to now, over 60,000 people have been killed, with over 700,000 displaced. Civil war is always a nasty affair, and the Syrian conflict is no different. Frustrations have run high on the United Nations Security Council, and there still exists an impasse between the US and Russia over humanitarian intervention. Obama has been criticized for not doing enough to stem the violence in Syria, unlike in Libya. However, Obama has approached Syria with the understanding that Syria is not Libya, or Egypt. Strong pressure from the White House and NATO action will not stop the tide of violence in the country and would only destabilize the region, as well as add a deep chill to already frosty US/Russia.

Obama has been far from indifferent on Syria. The administration has been approaching the conflict not with the ‘big stick’ of possible military intervention, but with diplomacy. In fact, just yesterday Vice President Joe Biden met with Syrian opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib. Khatib also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Khatib expressed that the opposition was willing to sit and talk with Assad. The Russians and Americans were happy with this small bit of progress, but it is yet to see how Assad will respond.

The Obama approach to Syria highlights an important foreign policy strategy of the administration. Obama is a true liberal in the fact that he utilizes the United Nations Security Council for what it was intended- to handle the issues of international conflict. Obama subscribes to the idea that if it doesn’t directly impact US interests, it is best handled by the UN.  By allowing the UN to be the primary way that the US interacts with Syria, the administration participates in a global framework towards ending the violence. It also keeps Russia from too strongly misinterpreting US actions in the region. While the US has recognized the Syrian opposition as the legitimate government of Syria, Obama is not willing to commit the US to installing them in power. It is a wise decision. The conflict already shows signs of taking a sectarian turn in violence, and there are reports of al Qaeda backed groups taking control in regions of Syria. Add to it the recent attack by Israel against Syria, and the region is already on the brink of falling well past the point of no return. Diplomacy is the proper strategy here, as high rhetoric and use of military force would only make the situation worse.  Obama is wise to use the channels of diplomacy to support the rebels without applying force. Anything else would be a disaster.