Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Syria: What Is To Be Done?

Last week, I detailed U.S. policy towards Syria, and how terrible I think it its.

All well and good.  But what should we do instead?

I'll start by providing the answer given by my friends Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasack, the founders of the Iraqi Student Project, who lived in Syria for half a decade, and stayed in Damascus long after car bombings became a weekly event:
-       Simply recognize how much we have lost with the Syrian people since their great rejoicing in Obama’s election in 2008. Ask how we lost this glimmer of hope.
-       Lean on our friends, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Turkey, to stop fanning flames, especially but not only with weapons and money to the opposition in Syria.
-       Stop being of any assistance in arms going into Syria through Turkey.
-       Assist far more with aid to Syrians living in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
-       Stop demonizing Iran and recognize they have to be included in any regional effort to end the violence.
-       Stop Israel from doing anything to any country including Gaza and the West Bank.
-       End sanctions against Syria on non-military goods.
-       understand how failure to stand up to Islamophobia in the US destroys our credibility.

Now, for the longform:

It may well be too late to save Syria.  Oceans of blood have been spilled by the regime.  Huge districts in Syria's largest cities are in ruins.  Nearly a million people have fled the country.  By one count, there are over a thousand independent militias fighting in Syria, most of them militant Islamist, all competing for weapons and territory.  The Kurds have already gained a large measure of autonomy, and are clashing with Arab rebels.  Videos are popping up online of little kids singing about how they want to kill all the Alawites and all the Shiites (i.e., 15% or so of Syria's population), cheered on by huge crowds of adults.  The modern state of Syria was an artificial creation of the French occupiers, and there may be no way to put it back together now that it has been shattered.

Paradoxically, though, it is precisely this horrific desolation that is now inspiring calls for peace from senior figures in both the regime and the opposition.

In December already, Bashar's vice president called for a peace settlement and a unity government, saying that the army could not win the war. (In an army-centric country like Syria, that's a huge deal.) Earlier this month, the leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition and the regime's "minister of reconciliation" both offered to meet with their opponents on certain conditions.  On Monday, the regime's foreign minister for the first time offered to negotiate even with groups that are actively fighting the government, "because we believe that reforms will not come through bloodshed but only through dialogue."

And then, last Wednesday, as I was trying to write this post, I got interrupted by Russia - the regime's biggest foreign backer - and the Arab League - which expelled the regime - offering together to host peace talks.

These steps are encouraging.  But they're unlikely to be enough.  The Syrian Civil War is not just about Syrians fighting each other; it's about Americans and Russians and Iranians and Saudis and Turks and Chinese fighting each other.  They're simply using the Syrians to do it.

The Sunni powers of the Middle East - Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar - have spent the last decade worrying about the ascent of Shiite Iran, whose support for Islamic revolution and restive Shiite populations across the region threatens their own power.  The Assad regime is Iran's only Arab ally, and TSAQ (as I will refer to them from now on) are intent on taking it down, and replacing it with a Sunni regime that will get in line. (Syria is majority Sunni.)

Thus, even if the current leaders of the Syrian opposition signed on to a peace process, TSAQ could simply shift their support to groups who were willing to carry on the fight.  Finding them won't be hard.

The U.S. is going along with all this, because, obviously, we want to take Iran down a notch too.  Our policymakers no doubt find this very easy to justify to themselves.  After all, Assad is very bad.  And so is the Iranian regime.  And it's not as if we're actually killing anyone ourselves...

As for Russia, the Arab world was once its domain, its Cold War proxy against the U.S.'s Israel.  Today, Syria is the only Arab country left in the Russian camp.  The rest have flipped to the U.S./TSAQ camp.  Syria is also the location of Russia's only port in the Mediterranean Sea.  Russia is also in the midst of a decades-long war with Sunni Islamic terrorists in Chechnya, and is not eager to see Sunni Islamic terrorists take over just one and a half countries south of them.  The Russians probably know that supporting Assad is a losing battle, but with the U.S./TSAQ pursuing a winner-takes-all strategy in Syria, why on earth would they stop?

With the current dynamic, neither side in this proxy war has any incentive to change course - even though this course will end the in the destruction of Syria.  The U.S. must be the one to change course.  It can pursue its eternal quest for Middle East hegemony and deal a(nother) crushing blow to Iran, or it can save Syria.  It can't do both. 

If the U.S. truly wants to make peace in Syria, the president needs to get on the phone with Vladimir Putin stat.  He should give assurances of the U.S.'s respect for Russian interests in Syria, and ask for help in setting up a peace process between the two sides in Syria.  Russia should be amenable to this - they've already offered as much, and a political settlement in Syria is the only way to keep their influence there.

Russia can use its influence with the Assad regime to support those regime elements in favor of peace.  Meanwhile, the president needs to get on the line with the leaders of TSAQ, and ask them to do the same with the opposition.  Heavy arms can no longer flow with abandon into Syria to any group willing to fight the regime.  Support must be restricted to groups that sign on to the peace process and are committed to minority rights in Syria - and TSAQ must help bring groups that aren't to heel.  Persuading TSAQ will be difficult, but not impossible.  One imagines that the long-term consequences of turning Syria into Somalia are starting to dawn on an Iran-obsessed TSAQ.

What should a peace deal look like?  I'm gonna go out a on a limb here and say irrelevant.  Whatever it takes to stop the killing for five minutes and let people think rationally again.  Syria is slouching towards genocide.  In a situation like that, there's no such thing as a bad peace.  Bashar leaving is a given.  He can crash on my couch.  As for the rest, the U.S. and Russia should figure out an agreement that is minimally acceptable to both sides and then push it hardcore until it's done.

For posterity, here's a video of a much smarter man than me (the Lebanese-Christian AUB Professor Habib Malik) saying pretty much the same thing nine months ago.  50,000 dead Syrians haven't proved him wrong:

Last week, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Ravlov, said of the Syrian Civil War, “Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it’s a road to nowhere, a road to mutual destruction of the people.”

Sure, he's a flunky for a self-obsessed, rock-band-jailing petro-tyrant.  Isn't it embarrassing that he's the one saying this, while our State Department prattles on about "the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people" every week?

By God's grace, it may not be too late.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Happily mistaken


The United States will attack the government of Syria this year.


If I’m wrong, as my roommate Matt thinks (he has a better sense for domestic politics than I), I will happily run around with egg on my face. 

 - Jefferson Aero Plane, February 18, 2012

As my grandpa helpfully pointed out to me the last time I saw him, the United States did not attack the government of Syria this year.  My bad. 

Also, good job Matt.  Way to be smart.

While I'm happy to be wrong, I guess this leaves my credibility in shreds.  Just like these people's:

"The Assad family has no more than a few weeks to remain in control in Syria."
- Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, January 2, 2012

“There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

 - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, March 27, 2011

"Notice that more-stagnant countries like Syria and North Korea have remained more stable."
- Fareed Zakaria, February 3, 2011

Here's to having less war than we might have otherwise had!

Friday, February 15, 2013

What is the U.S. Doing in Syria?

In one sentence?  Pouring fuel on the fire.

U.S. policy towards Syria has three parts: Humanitarian aid, aid to the armed Syrian opposition, and sanctions.

Humanitarian Aid

Two weeks ago, President Obama released this video, explaining to the Syrian people what the U.S. was doing to help them.

At the 0:55 mark he says this:

“American aid means medicine and treatment for hundreds of thousands of patients in Damascus, Daraa and Homs. …American aid means winter supplies for more than half a million people in Aleppo, Homs and Dayr az-Zour.  And we’re working with allies and partners so that this aid reaches those in need.”

Damascus, Daraa, Homs, Aleppo, Dayr az-Zour.

What do those places have in common?

They are all under the control of the regime.

According to McClatchy Newspapers, “The United States has deferred to the United Nations in distributing food and other aid to Syria’s displaced, but the U.N. won’t enter any part of Syria without the government’s permission.”

This effectively means that the very regime the U.S. is trying to overthrow (more on that later) is controlling who gets the humanitarian aid we send to Syria.

So, for instance, the Atma refugee camp, home to 20,000 refugees, directly across the border from Turkey?

No aid.

Reports Al-Jazeera English: “The UN channels all its aid through Damascus and the main distributor of this aid is the Syrian Arab Red Crescent which operates predominately in government-controlled areas.  …Aid workers inside Damascus tell us that even aid earmarked for disputed areas outside of the city is often commandeered by government soldiers never to be seen again.”

Last week, State Department officials told reporters that 49% of food aid going in to Syria was reaching “contested areas.” Roy Gutman of McClatchy notes that “they didn’t say which side controlled those areas.” Al-Jazeera: “The [Syrian Arab Red Crescent]'s own website lists the areas it has distributed aid to in Aleppo. All are held by the regime.

In short, if you're a Syrian unlucky enough to be living in opposition-controlled territory, or territory that is viewed as disloyal by the regime, as far as the U.S. is concerned, that's just too bad for you.

Which is ironic, considering the second plank of our Syria platform:

Aid to the Armed Opposition

If you’re a keen observer of the Syrian Civil War, you might ask yourself how it is that the Assad regime, for forty years the most feared police state in the Middle East, just twenty-three months after picking a fight with unarmed protestors, is now deploying tanks, snipers, artillery, helicopters and planes against its foes in a death match for Syria’s two largest cities – and is losing?

The erosion of popular support for the regime is the smaller part of the explanation.  The bigger part of that story is that the armed opposition is being funded, armed, and organized by foreign powers – all of them close U.S. allies.

Here I’ll let Scott Stewart of Stratfor take over:

There have been numerous videos released showing Syrian rebels using weapons such as the M79 Osa rocket launcher, the RPG-22, the M-60 recoilless rifle and the RBG-6 multiple grenade launcher. [Those are really good weapons.] …What is so interesting about these weapons is that they were not in the Syrian military’s inventory prior to the crisis, and they all likely were purchased from Croatia. [i.e. – someone foreign is giving them to the rebels.]

This means that the current level of external intervention in Syria is similar to the level exercised against the Soviet Union and its communist proxies following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

Obligatory Charlie Wilson’s War clip:

It’s a given that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and other Sunni Muslim states are funneling these weapons to the rebels.  It’s also a given that the U.S. knows about this, and is encouraging it under the table.

What we have in common with these states is a desire to see Iran’s only Arab ally, the Assad regime, toppled.

What we don’t have in common with these states is a healthy respect for democracy, pluralism and human rights.  There’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be thrilled to see Sunni Islamists come to power in Syria.  If anyone’s looking for a clue, all four of these states have Christian populations of under 1%.  In all four cases, that’s by design, not chance.  Syria’s Christian population is over 10% - for now.

In June, the New York Times reported that the CIA was helping the reconstituted Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey funnel “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons” into Syria.

Ostensibly, the CIA is doing this to prevent these weapons – which, it’s worth repeating, can blow up tanks – from falling into the “wrong” hands.  I have no earthly idea what they mean by “wrong.” In the words of Swedish Syria expert Aron Lund:

By November 2012, the ideological spectrum of Syria’s armed movement had narrowed to one ranging from apolitical Sunni conservatism or rural sufism, across the Muslim Brotherhood’s ikhwani Islamism, to the rigid ultra-orthodoxy of salafism. There was little or no room for secular ideologies.

Besides these covert moves, the U.S. is overtly providing tens of millions of dollars of “nonlethal aid” to the Syrian rebels, including intelligence and communications equipment.

Last week, outgoing defense secretary Leon Panetta revealed that President Obama had vetoed a plan to directly arm the Syrian rebels, a plan supported by the State Department, the Defense Department and the CIA.

To me, this reveals a lot about our president’s feeble sense of morality.  He’s willing to give the rebels nonlethal aid, and to give loads of military aid to countries that are giving the Syrian rebels weapons, and to help those countries give the Syrian rebels weapons – but give them weapons directly?  That’s where he draws the line.

The only practical effects of Obama’s refusal to go all the way are that the war will be prolonged, and the victorious rebels will have less reason to listen to us when we raise the issue of rights for religious minorities in the new Syria.


The third piece of the U.S.’s Syria policy is a draconian set of economic sanctions it has imposed with the help of its allies (currently including every country that neighbors Syria except for Iraq – and, well, it’s Iraq.  They’d be able to help more, but they have their own history with U.S. sanctions.)

Supposedly these sanctions are directed at the regime, not the Syrian people.  Funny thing: when the regime owns the country’s entire banking system and most of its economy, this is what happens to the people when you sanction the regime:

- Syria’s economy shrunk by 20% in 2012.
- The Syrian pound has lost half its value against the dollar since the conflict started.
- Wheat and barley production has dropped by over half in the past year.

True, American-led sanctions aren’t responsible for all of this.  But they certainly haven’t helped.

According to David Ignatius at The Washington Post, “U.S.-led economic sanctions appear to have backfired, much as they did in Iraq in the 1990s, hurting poor and middle-class people while allowing regime loyalists to get even richer.” Ignatius cites a report from Syrian opposition leaders calling the sanctions effort “the epitome of failure”:

“The regime is capable of bypassing most sanctions by using non-U.S. and non-Western productions. . . . It’s the Syrian people who do not have the means and the connections to bypass these sanctions. …These conditions have produced the largest transfer of wealth from the people to the government supporters. Under the current shortages and rising prices, the only businessmen who can sustain a profitable business are the ones who have military might at their disposal to protect their convoys.”

The report explains the effects of the U.S. embargo on diesel fuel into Syria this way: “Of course the military gets first dibs on [the fuel that does come in], and the civilians bid up the price of what is left.”

Ignatius: “Desperate for heating fuel, poor people are burning plastic and tree leaves.”

In this crazy era, it's unimaginable that there could be a major civil war in the Middle East without the U.S. being involved in at least some way.

I will outline what I'd like to see the U.S. do in Syria next week.  A preview - I'd like us to use our tremendous influence to discourage people in Syria from killing each other.

Alternatively, if the U.S. government was really super-convinced that Bashar al-Assad and his regime were beyond the pale, irredeemable, there's a number of ways they could force him out.  They could work out a deal with the Russians to stage a coup in Damascus.  They could enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, to keep Assad's planes from carpet bombing Syria's cities.  They could, you know, blow up Assad's house.  We can blow up just about anything these days, or so I hear.

We are doing none of those things.  Instead, we are strangling Syria's economy, dumping weapons on the country, dumping food and medical aid in the lap of the regime we claim to despise too much to even talk to, to distribute as it sees fit, and then standing back, posing as the voice of moral outrage, and offering up platitudes about the Congo.

There is no moral universe in which this is the right thing to do.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Obama on Syria and the Congo: Stupid or Evil?

That is the question.

Just look at all the ethnic strife!

In one of his first post-second-inauguration interviews (with The New Republic), our super-empathetic, super-cool, inherently relatable president was asked one question about the war in Syria.  As part of his answer, he said:

And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. …how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?

This is something of an old trick for our president.  When he was still running for president in 2007, during the occupation of Iraq, an interviewer with the AP asked him about the responsibility of the U.S. to forestall the threat of genocide in Iraq.  In that answer, he also invoked the Congo:

Well, look, if that's the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now – where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife – which we haven't done.

In Obama’s rhetoric, “the Congo” functions as The Incomprehensible.  It is the ultimate humanitarian catastrophe, and also the ultimate undoable.  Intervening in the Congo – the Congo – would, self-evidently, be the height of insanity, he implies.

The average American knows the Congo only as the ultimate alien place – an institutionless swamp where a bunch of black people are killing each other for who knows why. “Ethnic strife” as he puts it.  Only a crazy person would care about that place.

Obama then transmutes that reluctance onto conflicts where U.S. humanitarian action is many times more plausible.  Say, Iraq, which we were, not to put too fine a point on it, ruling over.  Or Syria, where a path to peace is easily imaginable, if the U.S. and its Sunni allies are willing to give up their dream of regional hegemony.  In response to uncomfortable questions about those places, he says:

What do you want me to do, guys?  Invade the Congo?  THE CONGO???

So the question: Is our president stupid or evil?

More precisely, can our president be unaware – can he not know – that the U.S. is intimately involved in the politics of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and has been for decades?

Under Obama’s watch, the U.S.’s close African ally (and military aid recipient), Rwanda, has sponsored the M23 rebel movement in eastern Congo, whose attacks on the civilian population have shattered the DRC’s fragile peace and displaced some 700,000 people.  M23’s tactics include mass rape, summary executions of aid workers, and recruitment of child soldiers.   

Obama’s administration has continued to supply Rwanda with weapons and has shielded its ally from critical UN Security Council resolutions.  When confronted with M23’s atrocities, Obama’s initial nominee for secretary of state in his second term, Ambassador Susan Rice, had this to say: “This is the D.R.C. If it weren’t the M23 doing this, it would be some other group.”

No wonder she's so defensive.  According to DRC expert Jason K. Stearns, “The M23 would probably no longer exist today without Rwandan support.”

In other words, that “ethnic strife” Obama is wringing his hands about, he himself has become largely responsible for.

Before Obama, the U.S. allied itself with Rwanda as it invaded the DRC multiples times from 1994 onward, committing massacres of Hutu civilians, seizing the DRC’s rich mineral resources, overthrowing its government and plunging the country into the civil war which, as Obama noted, killed as many as five million people.

Before that, the U.S. was a prime backer of Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the DRC (then called Zaire) with an iron fist for over thirty years, embezzling some five billion (with a “b”) dollars and dismembering his political opponents alive.  Mobutu was installed in a CIA-backed coup against the Third Worldist leader Patrice Lumumba.

If Obama is aware of all this, then he is deliberately playing on American anti-African racism to excuse our role in the Syrian bloodletting.

Or maybe it’s another case of telling a lie so many times, you begin to believe it yourself.

Shame about the Congo, eh?

Next week's blog topic, insha Allah: What is the U.S. doing in the Syrian war?

The week after that, en Allah raad: What should we be doing?

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Superbowl and Human Trafficking (Or, In Which I Rain on the Human Rights Parade)

Ahead of this year's Superbowl (Go Ravens! by the way), I saw a lot of talk on Facebook and elsewhere online about the expected deluge of prostitutes into New Orleans, many of them underage, many of them trafficked in against their will to service attendees at the Big Game.  This was a national shame, we were told, and we needed to pray for mercy and grace to turn back the tide.

I think this is commendable.  Human trafficking is a terrifying reality of Our Modern World.  Not to be too melodramatic about it, but I know this first hand, and I have no doubt it was present at the Superbowl.  It's great that this issue is starting to break into the public consciousness.

That said.

Several of the more popular posts on this issue, including one in TIME Magazine, made some claims that just don't pass the smell test.  I draw the following quotes from a piece in the Huffington Post:

“When it came time for the Super Bowl, Clemmie Greenlee was expected to sleep with anywhere from 25 to 50 men a day."

“According to Forbes, 10,000 prostitutes were brought to Miami for the Super Bowl in 2010 and 133 underage arrests for prostitution were made in Dallas during the 2011 Super Bowl.”

By now, your mental math alarms should be ringing, but let's break it down.

A little over 74,000 people attended the 2010 Superbowl in Miami. Let’s say another 36,000 people came to Miami because of the game, but did not actually attend. Let’s say that, instead of sleeping with 25 to 50 customers a day (not an unsurprising figure, by all accounts), each of the 10,000 prostitutes slept with only one customer.

That would make 1 out of every 10 game day visitors – including all the men, women, children, and elderly people in that category - a john.

Conclusion: Either NFL fans are superhumanly lecherous, or these statistics are totally wrong.

A similar story comes from Atlanta, where city police warned in 2004 that 1,000 Asian women and girls were being forced into prostitution.

The total number of trafficking victims rescued by Atlanta police in the following two years after receiving a $450,000 grant from the Justice Department?


As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says, "Had agency leaders questioned the estimate, they would have found it defied common sense. If it were true, one in eight of the city’s Asians would have been sex slaves."

Dear Justice Department: You gave them a $450,000 grant without questioning the estimate??  I have brilliant, unemployed friends who will question estimates for you all day for a fraction of that!

Interestingly enough, the 10,000 Superbowl prostitutes figure also seems to have originated with a city police department, this one in Miami.

Isn’t human trafficking horrific enough without making up absurd numbers like this?

If my math is off or I'm being counterrevolutionary by pointing this out, please let me know.

That is all.  The crusade may now resume.