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What to do About ISIS? Constructing Strategy, Weighing Options

Friday, August 29th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

ISIS or the Islamic StateCaliphate” is the focus  of a great deal of discussion and demands for action from the United Statesand also inactionfrom many quarters.

What is to be done?

That is a famous question.  In matters of geopolitics and strategy, it is more fitting to begin with “Should something be done?”. We need to define the problem before rushing toward solutions. What is ISIS/ISIL/IS  and does it threaten the United States and American interests?:

An evolving offshoot of al Qaida, ISIS is a more radically takfiri, more ambitious and more impatient  jihadi/irhabi offspring than it’s parent. The so-called Islamic State holds sway over considerable Sunni Arab territory in both Syria and Iraq with a makeshift capital at Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Theologically, ISIS is the most extreme Islamist movement to arise since the GIA near the tail end of their 1990′s insurgency in Algeria, regarding the Shia and less radical Sunnis as apostates, deserving of death.  They have carried out genocidal massacres of Yazidis and Shia prisoners of war, tortured and mutilated prisoners and executed noncombatants and hostages like reporter James Foley. Ominously, ISIS may also be an apocalyptic movement, not merely a radical takfiri one, making it far less risk averse, even brazen, in its offensive operations and more intransigently fanatical on defense.

ISIS has been popularly described as an unholy mixture of “al Qaida, the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis”  and also as a terrorist army” by General David Petraeus. While it is true that their ranks probably contain the cream of the world’s Salafi terrorist-jihadi current, terrorism in the form of assassinations and suicide bombings has only been adjunctive to insurgent tactics and conventional combined arms operations. ISIS has shown impressive small unit discipline, the capacity to engage in maneuver warfare with heavy arms against the Kurds, Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army and rival Syrian rebel groups and even special operations skills. ISIS has moved aggressively on the physical, mental and moral levels of war to amass territory for their “caliphate” and consolidate their power and continues to advance, despite being rebuffed from Irbil by the Kurds and US airpower. ISIS is heavily armed with large quantities of advanced modern American and Russian weapons captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies and is equally well funded, possessing in addition to significant revenue flows, the control of numerous dams and oilfields. Finally, in addition to their manifold war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, ISIS has also made broad, if vague, threats to strike New York, Chicago and Americans generally.

ISIS in a sense is the dream of jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri come to life and gone from strength to strength. If they do not have al-Suri in their ranks, they have his playbook and do not seem to shrink from employing stratagems and speed to achieve surprise.

Having assessed their capabilities, I think it is reasonable to conclude that ISIS is a threat to American interests because they are destabilizing the region, threatening the security of American allies and are regularly causing a grave humanitarian crisis far beyond the normal exigencies of war. It is less clear that they are a direct threat to the security of United States and to the extent that ISIS terrorism is a threat, it is a  modest one,  though greater to Americans and US facilities overseas. The caveat is that the strength and capabilities of ISIS have already grown faster and qualitatively improved more than any other non-state actor in the last forty years and are on a trajectory of further growth. ISIS is unlikely to be better disposed toward American interests if it grows stronger. CJCS General Dempsey, correctly attempted to convey all of these nuances in his remarks to reporters without overstepping his role into advocating a policy to shape our strategy, which is the responsibility of his civilian superiors.

This brings us to the cardinal weakness in post-Cold War American statesmen – an unwillingness to do the intellectual heavy lifting that connects policy and strategy by making the choice to articulate a realistic vision of political ends that are the desired outcome of a decisive use of military force.  The result of this aversion (which is bipartisan – I am not picking on the Obama administration here) is that a strategy is not formulated, much less executed and the military then attempts to remediate the strategic gap with the sheer awesomeness of its operational art. That does not usually work too well, at least on land, because contemporary American civilian and military leaders also do not like to inflict the kind of horrific mass casualties on the enemy that, even in the absence of a real strategy might still cripple through sheer attrition  the enemy’s will or capacity to fight.  The American elite today, in contrast to the generation of FDR, Eisenhower and Truman, have no stomach for Dresden – but defeating Nazis sometimes requires not just a Dresden, but many of them and worse.

However, let’s assume the best, that the Obama administration will, having learned from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, construct a strategy to use force to accomplish victory – gaining coherent, specific and realistic political objectives. The President, having refreshingly admitted that there is no strategy at present, has freed up his subordinates to create one rather than digging in and defending the current policy that lacks one. Since the administration and nearly everyone else on Earth agrees that ISIS , in addition to being moral monsters, is a threat to at least some degree. the questions then become:

  • How much of a threat is ISIS to American interests or security?
  • What do we want the political end state to be in the Mideast if/when the threat of ISIS is contained, diminished or destroyed?
  • What is it worth to us to accomplish this outcome in light of our other, competing, American interests, in the region and globally?

Once those important questions are answered, the military leadership will have the proper policy guidance to give the administration the best possible advice on how military force could secure their aims or be used in concert with other elements of national power civilian leaders might wish to employ, such as diplomacy, economic coercion or covert operations. Moving forward without answering these questions is an exercise in flailing about, hoping that using sufficient force opportunistically will cause good geopolitical things to happen.

I will not venture to say how or if administration officials will answer such questions, but there are some broad military options the Pentagon might offer to further a strategy to contend with ISIS. Some suggested possibilities and comments:

These options are not all mutually exclusive and in practice some would blend into others. No option is perfect, cost free or without trade-offs. Attempting to find the strategy with no risks and no hard choices is a policy to engage primarily in ineffectual military gesticulations insufficient to actually change the status quo in Iraq and Syria ( and the eternal default strategy of domestic political consultants and career bureaucrats playing at foreign policy).

DO NOTHING:

Doing nothing, or non-intervention is vastly underrated as a strategy because it is passive. However, most of the greatly feared, worst-case scenarios will fail to materialize as predicted because the actors about whom we harbor grave suspicions usually become bogged down by their own friction, miscalculations, internal politics and chance. This is why calling every foreign menace, great and small, the next “Hitler” has lost much of its charge. Run of the mill tyrants and corrupt dictators simply are not Adolf Hitler and their crappy, semi-developed, countries are not to be equated with turning the industrial heart of Europe into a war machine. Avoiding a needless war of choice is usually the smarter play from an economic and humanitarian standpoint.  The drawback to this option is that every once in a while, the menace really is another Hitler, a Bolshevik Revolution or a less than existential threat that nevertheless, is politically intolerable for numerous good reasons.  ISIS barbarism probably falls into the latter category and doing absolutely nothing becomes risky in the face of a fast-rising aggressor and probably politically untenable at home.

CONTAINMENT:

Containing a threat with a combination of coercion, non-military forms of pressure and  limited uses of armed force short of all-out warfare is designed to prevent further expansion until the adversary loses the will or capacity to remain a threat. This defensive posture was the successful American grand strategy of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and is frequently invoked as a less costly alternative for proposed interventions. Admittedly, the idea of keeping Islamist radicals bottled up in a “Sunnistan” composed of the Syrian desert and northern Iraqi towns until they starve or are overthrown and murdered by locals has a certain charm.

Unfortunately, this option is not likely to work because the underlying analogy is extremely poor.  Containment worked in part because Soviet insistence on maintaining the USSR as a totalitarian “closed system” made them exceptionally vulnerable to Containment’s pressure which allowed them no lasting way to resolve their internal economic and political contradictions. ISIS is not the Soviets and their Caliphate is not a closed system, or even yet, a durable state.  Their jihadi cadres can melt away across borders and new recruits can make their way in, as can contraband, money and information. Physically containing ISIS would do nothing toward discrediting their ideas; more likely, their continued existence in the face of powerful Western and Arab state opposition would validate them.  In any event, sealing off ISIS would require the unstinting, sustained, cooperation of  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, Turkey, the Assad regime, the Kurds and a large deployment of American troops. This is probably not doable except on a very short term basis as a prelude to a “final offensive” like the one that crushed the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

PROXY WARFARE:

Enlisting foreign local allies, be they loyalist paramilitaries or state military regulars of various countries offers numerous advantages as well as drawbacks. It provides boots on the ground that we can’t afford, while irregulars like Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militiamen would be highly motivated to fight. The Kurds are also (relatively speaking) well disciplined and trained compared to building units by throwing together ragtag tribesmen and down on their luck Iraqi townsmen looking for a paycheck. Adding overwhelming American airpower to the mix would greatly improve the fighting power of irregular light infantry, as was demonstrated recently when Kurdish and Iraqi forces repeled ISIS from Iraq’s largest dam. Proxy warfare offers a fairly decent chance to roll back ISIS but the downside is that proxies also have their own agendas and would range from “mostly but not entirely reliable” (Kurds) to “freebooting death squads” (Shia militias). As in Afghanistan, we would soon find our proxies were also in the pay of Iran and Saudi Arabia and attempting to play one patron off against the other. Recognizing Kurdish independence would most likely be part of the deal (not a bad thing in my view) which would require repudiating a decade of failed nation-building policy in Iraq ( also not a bad thing) and accepting partition.

LIMITED WARFARE: 

Limited warfare is often disdained because it can seldom produce a resounding victory but it is useful in playing to strengths (ex. relying on a robust air campaign) while  limiting exposure to risks and costs.  Overwhelming firepower can be applied selectively to prevent an adversary’s victory and impose punishing costs, eating up their men and material. Limited warfare works best in conjunction with simple and limited political goals and military objectives and poorly with grandiose visions ( like turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy and haven of women’ rights). Limited warfare on land, particular grinding counterinsurgency wars that go on for years on end with no clear stopping point, are very difficult for democracies to sustain politically. The electorate grows weary and the troops come home, often short of a permanent political settlement. The likely preference of the administration, if it chose this option, would be an air campaign coupled with drones, CIA covert action and SOF, working in conjunction with local allies.

MAJOR WARFARE:

For existential threats, go heavy or go home. This is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine in pursuit of a decisive battle that does not merely defeat but crushes the enemy and compels him to submit to our will.  It would be extraordinarily expensive in blood, treasure and opportunity costs as the United states military is ill-prepared to re-deploy the bulk of the Army and Marine Corps to Iraq, supported by carrier groups in the Gulf. It is highly questionable that ISIS, whose fighters number somewhere between 10,000 – 20,000 would stand up and try to fight such an mammoth expedition head-on. They would retreat to Syria and dare us to invade that country also or go underground. It is also dubious that American leaders have the kind of iron-hearted will to fight what Gary Anderson accurately describes as “a combined arms campaign of extermination“. ISIS by contrast, demonstrates daily that it has no such scruples restraining them.

GRAND COALITION:

This differs from the previous option only in that it would bring all or most of the aforementioned armed enemies of ISIS together to corner and annihilate the menace once and for all. It makes eminent strategic sense but the ability to bring together so many incompatible parties and weld them into a coordinated military campaign requires political-diplomatic wizardry on the order of genius to pull off. It also requires a much greater sense of fear of ISIS than even their ghoulish brutality has generated so far to bring together Saudi and Shia, Turk and Kurd, Alawite and Sunni rebel, American and Iranian, as military allies.

The Obama administration faces a difficult dilemma in pondering the problem presented by ISIS. I don’t envy them but their task will grow easier and a resultant strategy more likely successful if they are willing to make ruthless choices in pursuit of bottom-line, clearly-defined American interests.

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Love (of Islam) Is Blindness

Friday, March 14th, 2014

[ Guest post by Dr Tim Furnish -- cross-posted from MahdiWatch ]
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Even Christ might have a hard time fixing John Brennan's view of Islam, unlike with this chap

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In Shakespeare’s works, particularly King Lear, “blindness is not [merely] a physical quality, but a mental flaw some people possess.” More authoritatively, and perhaps more pithily expressed by the Gospel writers, Jesus said that “if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (St. Matthew, 15:14). It’s easy to see how this describes the Obama Administration as a whole — but particularly its policy towards Islam and the Islamic world. And the main spokesman for this visual and intellectual impairment is CIA Director John Brennan.

I commented on Brennan’s, and indeed his entire agency’s, (willful?) blindness to Islamic realities last year. But as Ronaldus Magnus once said to an equally clueless opponent, “there you go again.” At the Council on Foreign Relations two days ago, the man who oversees the mission to “provide … leaders with the best information possible to help them make policy involving other countries” expressed egregiously bad information on Islamic history and beliefs—and not for the first time, either.

Brennan, who once worked as CIA station chief in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and who is said to hold a M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas-Austin, said the following: that al-Qa`idah’s [AQ] Islamic ideology is “a perverse and very corrupt interpretation of the Qur’an” and that that organization has “hijacked” Islam and “distorted the teachings of Mohammed [sic], for violent purposes.” I first refuted this ludicrous claim — particularly the “hijacking” one — almost a decade ago. And I will leave for others to deal with the legion of violent Qur’anic passages that disprove Brennan’s laughable claim about AQ’s exegesis.

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Instead, let’s focus on the founder of Islam, Muhammad. According to not just the Qur’an but Hadiths (sayings attributed to Muhammad and sirât), or biographies of him, Muhammad not only practiced violence but seemed to enjoy and recommend it. And this was not “defensive” war, as the apologists would have it — it was more often than not offensive, attacking peoples and states who had done no harm to any Muslims. Muhammad of course (in)famously presided over the beheading of between 600 and 900 men of the Jewish Banu Qurayzah tribe in Medina who refused to acknowledge him as a “prophet.” He also supervised the beheading of a Meccan poet, al-Nadr b. al-Harith, who opposed him.

Muhammad furthermore enjoined warring against other Muslims whom he deemed insufficiently devoted to jihad — even ordering that a mosque built by such be burned down. The “prophet” of Islam also employed torture in addition to killing, as when Muhammad ordered the torture by fire of the Jew Kinana b. al-Rabi` until he revealed where he had hidden his wealth.

Muhammad hijacking Brennan's fairy-tale Islam by directing troops in battle

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Muhammad’s military campaigns have been the subject of a number of works in recent years, such as Russ Rodgers, The Generalship of Muhammad and Richard Gabriel, Muhammad: Islam’s First Great General. The latter’s book was the basis of a long article in “Military History Quarterly” (2007), entitled “Muhammad: the Warrior Prophet,” the conclusion of which is worth quoting: “Classical [Sunni] Islamic law is less tolerant [than Twelver Shi`ism] of non-Muslims … Conservative Sunnis, such as the Wahhabis of Arabia, and modern militant jihadis in Iraq and Pakistan still adhere to the traditional doctrine. It is among these militant conservative Muslims that the military legacy of Muhammad is most alive today.

"MHQ:" a "perverse and very corrupt" portrayal of Islam's founder, I suppose?

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Maybe U2, not Shakespeare or even Christ, got the relationship between the current American administration and Islam most correct: “love is blindness.”

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Serpent logics: the marathon

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- oh, the sheer delightful drudgery of finding patterns everywhere ]
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I’ll start this post, as I did the previous one to which this is a sort of appendix, with a (deeply strange, tell me about it) example of the…

Matrioshka pattern:


That’s a piece of jewelry made out of disembodied pieces of Barbies from the extraordinary designer’s mind of Margaux Lange, FWIW.

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This post is the hard core follow up to my earlier piece today, Serpent logics: a ramble, and offers you the chance to laugh and groan your way through all the other “patterns” I’ve been collecting over the last few months. My hope is that repeated (over)exposure to these patterns will make the same patterns leap out at you when you encounter them in “real life”.

Most of the examples you run across may prove humorous — but if you’re monitoring news feeds for serious matters, my hunch is that you’ll find some of them helpful in grasping “big pictures” or gestalts, noting analomalies and seeing parallels you might otherwise have missed.

Have at it!

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Here’s another Matrioshka, from the structural end of lit crit that my friend Wm. Benzon attacks with gusto over at New Savannah:

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Enantiodromia:

You’ll recall this is the pattern where something turns into its opposite… as described in this quote from the movie Prozac Nation:

I dream about all the things I wish I’d said.
The opposite of what came out of my mouth.
I wish I’d said
“Please forgive me. Please help me.
I know I have no right to behave this way?”

Here are a few examples…

Ahmed Akkari Repents Violent Opposition to Danish Cartoons Lampooning Islam:

After a Danish newspaper published cartoons satirizing the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, Ahmed Akkari spearheaded protests that ultimately cost the lives of 200 people. Now he says he’s sorry. Michael Moynihan on what changed Akkari’s mind.

That’s impressive!

That one’s run of the media mill…

And this one’s from my delightful, delicious boss, Danielle LaPorte:

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A friend sent me this:

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Let’s just plough ahead…

Nominalism:

Nominalism is the category where the distinction between a word and what it represents gets blurry — a very significant distinction in some cases —

How’s this for naming your donkey after your President?

Consider this one, another instance of nominalism in action, from the French justice system:

A mother who sent her three-year-old son Jihad to school wearing a sweater with the words “I am a bomb” on the front, along with his name and ‘Born on September 11th’ on the back, was handed a suspended jail sentence on Friday for “glorifying a crime”. A court of appeal in the city of Nimes, southern France, convicted Jihad’s mother Bouchra Bagour and his uncle Zeyad for “glorifying a crime” in relation to the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11th 2001.

The classic nominalist image — with which I’d compare and contrast the French three-year-old with the unfortunate name and tsee-shirt — is Magritte’s cdelebrated “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”:

And here’s one final nominalist example:

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The spiral:

Here’s a potential downwards spiral, for those watching India:

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Straight parallelism:

This one’s from Jonathan Franzen:

And meanwhile the overheating of the atmosphere, meanwhile the calamitous overuse of antibiotics by agribusiness, meanwhile the widespread tinkering with cell nucleii, which may well prove to be as disastrous as tinkering with atomic nucleii. And, yes, the thermonuclear warheads are still in their silos and subs.

**

Simple Opposition:

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Some of these categories seem pretty fluid — or to put that another way, some of these examples might fit with equal ease into several doifferent categories. Here’s another oppositional class:

Arms crossed:

From Ezra Klein and Evan Solta blogging at WaPo’s Wonkbook: The Republican Party’s problem, in two sentences:

It would be a disaster for the party to shut down the government over Obamacare. But it’s good for every individual Republican politician to support shutting down the government over Obamacare.

A great “values” juxtaposition:

And hey, nice phrasing:

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Here’s an example of one of the central patterns of violence and justice:

Tit for Tat:

[ the account this tweet came from, which was a media outlet for Shabaab, has since been closed -- hence the less than euqal graphical appearance of this particular tweet... ]

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And here, without too much further ado, is a whole concatenation of…

Serpents biting their tails:

[ ... and that last one of Nein's appears to have been withdrawn from circulation ]

This one I love for its lesson on biblical pick-and-choose:

This one is also a DoubleQuote:

when closely followed by:

And this one really bites:

**

To close the series out with more of a bang than a whimper, here’s Serpent bites Tail with apocalypse & gameplay for additional spice:

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Reprehending Ignorance about Syria

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

I’ve had the pleasure of introducing Timothy R. Furnish, PhD, as a guest blogger here before. Today he offers us his timely commentary on factors which should influence US decision-making regarding Syria. Here I would invite you to note especially his comments on the religious factors involved, which he characterizes as “the most salient issue at hand” and details in the long paragraph which begins “Finally…”

Charles Cameron
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Ottoman Asia (partial map, 1893)

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American intervention in Syria, most likely in the form of air- or cruise missile-strikes against select targets, now seems a certainty, considering that not just the Obama Administration but a whole host of politicians and commentators — ranging across the political spectrum, from Bill O’Reilly to Senator John McCain and to “The New York Times” editorial board — stridently supports military action. The reasons adduced are primarily these:

1) The usage of chemical weapons is an atrocity and violation of international law and must be punished accordingly
2) Syria being Iran’s “pawn,” any strike at the Damascus regime is tantamount to one at the Islamic Republic and, thus, ipso facto a good thing
3) al-Asad is a Hitleresque “monster” — no further discussion required
4) President Obama’s credibility is at stake, his having previously deemed usage of chemical weapons to be an uncrossable “red line” that would trigger retaliation.

Those opposed to the US attacking the al-Asad regime invoke, rather, points such as:

1) Realpolitick-wise, the US has no national security interest in Syria
2) Any action that degrades the al-Asad regime actually helps the jihadist elements of the Syrian opposition, especially the al-Qa`ida-affiliated, pro-caliphate Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahidin al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad (“The Front of Support to the Family of Syria from the Holy Warriors of Syria in the Battlefields of Jihad”). As LTC Ralph Peters put it on “The O’Reilly Factor” (8.27.13), “do we really want to help the jihadists who perpetrated 9/11?”
3) US bombing — even if attempted “surgically” — will result in collateral damage to Syrian civilians and motivate Syria and its allies (especially Iran and Hizbullah) to activate terrorist cells against Americans, certainly in the larger Middle East, probably in Europe and possibly even in the US homeland.

Three major areas of ignorance are manifested in these two Manichaean positions (albeit moreso in the pro-bombing camp).

First, it is not (yet) certain that it was indeed the al-Asad regime that employed chemical weapons. According to a source with whom I am in contact — a former intelligence operative who worked in Syria for a number of years — it is quite possible that Jabhat al-Nusra, or one of the other jihadist opposition groups (Syrian Islamic Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Ansar al-Islam, Ahfad al-Rasul, etc.) pilfered a government chemical weapons stockpile and wielded the lethal bounty in a false flag operation. It is also possible that such jihadist groups were supplied chemical weapons directly by* North Korea.

Second, it is simply not the case in modern times that use of chemical or nerve agents automatically provokes the international community’s wrath. Libya used such weapons in Chad in 1986, and (more infamously) Saddam Husayn did likewise against Iraqi Kurds in 1987. Neither of those events engendered US or NATO retaliation. Furthermore, Syria is not a signatory to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention prohibiting utilization of chemical or nerve agents; and Damascus signed the similar 1925 Geneva Protocol when it was under the French Mandate—thus having no choice in the matter. This in no wise lessens the horror of chemical weapons, but an American administration headed by a self-styled former law professor would do well to get its international legal ducks in a row before launching the first cruise missile.

Finally, and most importantly, neither the pro- nor anti-bombing faction seems aware of the most salient issue at hand: that the ruling regime is composed of Alawis, a heretical Shi`i offshoot sect the adherents of which have long been condemned as murtaddun, “apostates,” in Sunni Islam — first by the (in)famous Sunni cleric Ibn Taymiyah in his early-14th c. AD fatwas, then again just last year by the al-Qa`ida cleric Abd Allah Khalid al-Adm, who said “don’t consult with anyone before killing Alawites.” Alawis have existed for about a millennium, mostly in the mountains of coastal Lebanon and Syria, and have always been persecuted by Sunni rulers, going back to the first days of Ottoman Turkish control of the Levant in the 16th century. Under the French Mandate, post-World War I, and afterwards they insinuated themselves into the military and intelligence service such that, eventually, one of their own, Hafiz al-Asad, took control in 1970. Spurned by Sunni Arab countries, the elder al-Asad cleverly got his Alawi sect officially declared Shi`i by the influential Lebanese Twelver Shi`i cleric Musa al-Sadr (before the latter disappeared in Libya in 1976); and when the ayatollahs took control of Iran in 1979, Damascus and Tehran began, if not a beautiful, certainly a mutually beneficial, friendship — which has existed ever since. Hafiz and his son Bashar al-Asad both ruled largely as secularists — due to their sectarian affiliation, and to their official ideology of Arab socialism, articulated as the Ba`ath Party. (So to be fair to Hillary Clinton — who, in March 2011, referred to Bashar al-Asad as a “reformer” — he was much more modernizing and tolerant than many Sunni leaders of the region, if only out of political necessity.) That meant that the 10% of the Syrian population that is Christian largely supported the leader of the strange Islamic sect (also comprising about 10% of Syrians) over against the 3/4 of the population that is Sunni, fearing what a Muslim Brotherhood/Salafi takoever would portend for them. Such fears have skyrocketed since the “Arab Spring” came to Syria over two years ago — especially as groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and its ilk have trumpeted their hatred of Alawis and their burning desire for a Sunni caliphate that would relegate Christians (and Jews) to their historical, second-class dhimmi status. Thus, it is not totally beyond comprehension why a beleaguered, religiously-heterodox regime might feel it necessary to deploy, and perhaps even use, chemical weapons — as a means of staving off probable extermination at the hands of jihadists.

All in all, it appears that the pro-bombing position is much weaker than the anti-attack one. As noted previously, chemical weapons’ usage has not automatically resulted in international action in punishment; Syria is not, legally, bound by relevant conventions; and we are not certain which side actually used these arms. The idea that “any strike against the Damascus regime is a blow to Iran” is dubious at best: Iraq is at least as solicitous of the Islamic Republic as is Syria, but no calls for bombing Baghdad have been proffered. Some advance the thesis that striking al-Asad’s forces helps Israel’s geopoliticial position — but one can equally well argue that cutting off Tehran’s access to Lebanese Hizbullah would undercut the ayatollahs’ main conventional warfare outlet, and thus make it more likely they would want to use the nuclear weapons they will very soon possess. Furthermore, why should the Alawi, Druze and Christian minorities of Syria pay the price for US cowardice about attacking Iran directly? As for the “al-Asad = Hitler” trope — how many years will it take before the West, particularly the US, can wage war without “Hitlerizing” the opposition? That’s not a rational argument; it’s an emotional one. And regarding the allegation that President Obama needs to attack Syria in order to resurrect his political credibility, at home and abroad — let us hope that he is not, still, that callow after over five years in the White House. At least Richard III only needed his ignorance, not his political cunning, reprehended.

On the other side of the equation: the US does have security interests in the region, but not specifically in Syria; it is certainly true that vitiating al-Asad’s military will simultaneously empower the opposition — and not just the ostensibly-Westernized Free Syrian Army but also the jihadists like Jabhat al-Nusra; and it’s very likely that extant Iranian-trained terrorist cells will activate in Europe and the US if we intervene in Syria.

As Gandalf advised in The Fellowship of the Ring: “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. Even the very Wise cannot see all ends.” The Obama Administration, and its supporters advocating attacking the Syrian regime, may not be able to see all ends; but they could certainly strive to be a bit wiser and consider some relevant data that might just be inconvenient to their position — before meting out yet more American death in the Middle East.

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To view the Ottoman Empire map at the head of the post at full size, see here and click for high resolution.

FTR, this post was received from Dr Furnish dated, and posted here, 8.28.2013. * indicates an edit made at Dr Furnish’s request upon rereading after publication.

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Bomb Syria?

Thursday, August 29th, 2013


[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. "zen"]

There is much ado about a prospective Western (i.e. American) aerial campaign to bomb the Iranian allied Alawite-Baathist dictatorship Syria over use of chemical weapons against primarily al Qaida allied Sunni Islamist extremist rebels.

To what end or how that end will be brought about by a surgical use of American air power, aided by token French and British contributions, well, no one is quite sure.

The driving insider force behind this astrategic call to arms are Susan Rice, Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter, the three Furies of R2P.  Slaughter writes on military intervention in Syria with her usual combination of moral certainty and operational magical thinking here. Rice angrily pontificates here while an unusually muted UN Ambassador Samantha Power just tweeted about it while on vacation from the emergency UN Security Council meeting on, uh, Syria.

The strategic argument about Syria is not about the normative qualities of the Assad regime, which is anti-American, brutal, terrorist supporting and fascistic. Or that the regime is committing atrocities. It is. It is about what political objective, if any, the use of military force against Syria can accomplish at what cost and with what probable outcomes. At a grand strategic level, there are also questions about how military intervention in Syria will impact great power relations and the shaping of international law.

I suspect many R2P advocates like Slaughter, Rice and Power are attracted to the idea of bombing Syria partly to garner a precedent to support doing similar things in the future, whether or not it has any positive effect on the Syrian civil war. That however, if true, is an extremely poor reason for military intervention anywhere. If bombing had some hope of changing the behavior of the Syrian regime or replacing it with something better, I would warm to the prospect but where is the evidence that is a likely outcome? Consider:

The Syrian rebels include armed groups as violent, lawless and squalid as the Assad regime. You know, the Beheading community of the third jihad international, with fringe support from the occasional cannibal commandos. If these Islamist lunatics come to power in Damascus they will cheerfully engage in ghastly pogroms of mass murder and torture that will make Assad’s goons look like the British Raj at tea time.

The Assad regime and the Alawite minority from whence it originates have their backs to the wall in a conflict that determines if they continue to rule Syria or are exterminated. Having no margin for maneuver or concession, America bombing them is irrelevant to whether in their calculus they can stop fighting their local enemies. The whole point of combining the threat of force with diplomacy – allegedly the reason given for bombing Syria – is to be able to make Assad an offer that he can’t refuse and not a threat that the Alawites can’t accept. Then, while blustering loudly and ominously we undercut our own bellicose posturing and announce that regime change was off the table. WTF?  Really?

The President should fire this unholy crew of incompetents and intellectual poseurs and hire some real foreign policy advisers with at least an undergraduate level grasp of how diplomacy, strategy and war have worked for the past 2000 years.

Failing that, a few poker players who can bluff without showing the entire table their cards.

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