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New Article up at Divergent Options

Monday, January 16th, 2017

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

I have a piece up at Divergent Options, a new national security site that aims to provoke thought regarding foreign policy with a concise template that distills the essence of foreign policy problems and provides but does not recommend options. As DO describes it:

What We Do:  In 1,000 words or less, Divergent Options provides unbiased, dispassionate, candid articles that describe a national security situation, present multiple options to address the situation, and articulate the risk and gain of each option.  Please note that while we assess a national security situation and provide options, we never recommend a specific option.

Who We Communicate To:  Our intended audience is National Security Practitioners worldwide.  We keep our articles short and to the point because we know that Practitioners have a limited amount of time and are likely reading our content on a digital device during a commute, a lunch break, or in-between meetings

My post is an effort to reconnect Syrian policy, widely regarded as a disaster by most foreign policy pundits, back to a coherent grand strategy.

Syria Options: U.S. Grand Strategy 

[…]

Background:  Aleppo has fallen and with it the last shreds of credibility of President Obama’s policy on Syria.  None of Obama’s policy goals for Syria since the Arab Spring revolt were achieved.  In Syria, the Assad regime has crushed western-backed opposition fighters with direct Russian and Iranian military ground support; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still controls swaths of Syrian territory[1] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey has conspired with Iran and Russia to exclude the U.S. and UN[2] from Syrian settlement talks.

Significance:  While Syria itself is of little strategic value to the U.S. beyond secondary implications for Israeli security, the utter failure of the Obama administration has brought U.S. diplomatic prestige to a nadir reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis or the fall of Saigon.  Worse, defeat in Syria occurred in a broader context of successful Russian aggression in Ukraine, uncontested Russian meddling in an U.S. presidential election, and perceptions of U.S. strategic concessions to Tehran in the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA[3]).  Should the next administration want to accomplish more than Obama, it is vital that they  1) address Syria within the context of increased Russian-U.S. competition and 2) seize the initiative in restoring the influence of U.S. leadership with substantive and symbolic policy changes in regard to Syria and Russia.

Read the rest here.

Happy Christmas: Of Shia & Christian in Beirut and Aleppo

Sunday, December 25th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — season’s greetings ]
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Posted by Rami Al Khal on Tuesday, December 20, 2016

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I trust you can see and hear this video, or at least click through to Le Liban c’est ça aussi : une chorale musulmane qui chante Noël dans une église and watch it. It presents, as the post in French tells us, a Lebanese Shiite choir singing Christmas carols in a church, and with it I offer you my Christmas greetings on behalf of one and all at Zenpundit, greetings secular, sacred, Maccabean, Nazarene, Muslim, or at the mall.

**

I’m, as you may know, in recovery from heart surgery and on kidney dialysis, and this year I received a very kind care package of renal-failure appropriate food from an anonymous source, so I’m reminded that while the mall, grocery store and food-laden table may not represent the “essence of Christmas” as my mother would have wished — the child born God to brighten our dark world — they can nonetheless represent generosity as well as commerce, a break in the relentless pursuit of dominance, human life as gift and giving.

On this day, therefore, of commercial, charitable and Christian celebration, we wish you all, according to your varied natures and our own perspectives, happiness this Christmas in the teeth of winter and the world.

**

That Muslim voices are raised above in a Christian church in praise of the Christian nativity offers a glimpse of hope for mutual respect in the strife-and faith-torn Middle East — but such matters as the overlapping and interconnections of faiths are never simple, and by way or remembering something of the nuance, here’s a quick sentence from COL Pat Lang‘s post at Sic Semper Tyrannis yesterday, Christmas in Aleppo – Attention Joe Scarborough:

One of our German correspondents on SST informed us the other day that there are now some Christian members of Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia militia. This would make sense because after the 2006 war against Israel Hizbullah assigned priority of its own reconstruction money to Christians in south Lebanon.

**

To quote Charles Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity..

Best wishes & blessings to all..

Prophetic dreams, Dabiq now, Mosul back then

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — two dreams of the Prophet attributed to al-Baghdadi, one just now, one a year and a half ago ]
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Another response to the failure of a prophecy is to claim the Prophet foretold it. That at least is the claim made recently about the ISIS retreat from Dabiq:

However, we should note that something very similar was reported back in March of 2015!

baghdadi-dream-mosul-2015

**

Dreams were important to Muhammad and his Companions, gave guidance to both bin Laden and Mullah Omar, and are important to ISIS. They are among the “soft” aspects of jihad that we overlook at our peril (cf Thomas Hegghammer).

For a quick overview, see Iain R Edgar‘s pieces, Islamic State and Dream Warfare from September, or his earlier The Dreams of Islamic State. The second edition of his book, The Dream in Islam: From Qur’anic Tradition to Jihadist Inspiration includes material on ISIS.

On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: nine

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — if the territory is graphical, so’s the map ]
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Terrain, with its named places and transportation links between them, is graphical, as illustrated in this map:

It makes me wonder how often graph theory (of the sort that gives us the Königsberg Bridge Problem, see the first post in this series) is applied to troop movements — as it often is to public transportation (see the upcoming tenth post).

**

My next example of the use of a node-and-edge graphical design both puzzles and intrigues me:

It puzzles me, because I can’t quitec grasp what Raza Rumi — a very bright fellow — is up to in choosing this particular illustration. And it intrigues me, because once on a vision quest I glimpsed an outstretched eagle’s or hawk’s wing, with a similar graphical overlay of its structural essence. It’s a sight I’ve never forgotten, an exquisite linking of the real and abstract worlds, and one that I’m sadly ill-equipped to reproduce visually myself. Words don’t do it justice.

**

My third example, as you can see, is taken from a learned paper describing the use of graphs to illustrate musical compositions according to a strictly defined protocol:

What interests me here — aside from the fact that any of these digrams could be used as a board in a sufficiently complex HipBone or Sembl game — is that I ran across this particular paper within 24 hours of reading m’friend Bill Benzon‘s account of his friend Michael Bérubé and his son Jamie, introduced in this tweet:

Bill’s post Jamie’s Investigations, Part 1: Emergence to which his tweet refers us — is illustrated thus:

benzon-jamie-berube-01

Michael Bérubé, we read, has recently published a book about Jamie, who has Down’s, Life as Jamie Knows It: An Exceptional Child Grows Up, and it contains a series of Jamie’s drawings, of which this is one example.

Bill, who is himself the author of Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, notes “Jamie loves music, and his dad is a rock-and-roll drummer, so’s his older brother Nick, I believe.” And here’s the clincher — he then asks:

In what way are these drawings like drum beats?

So that’s two examples of novel visual representations of musical pattern in just two days, earlier this week.

**

Enough for now — onwards to On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: ten — a long, fascinating post IMO, long enough that I’m glad this is a Sunday.

Earlier in this series:

  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: preliminaries
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: two dazzlers
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: three
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: four
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: five
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: six
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: seven
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: eight
  • Washington’s governing elites think we’re all morons

    Monday, October 3rd, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a study in the mighty and their lowly, knowledge and ignorance, truth and falsehood ]
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    all-morons

    Vice News, Washington’s governing elites think we’re all morons

    **

    First, if you’ll permit, the simple truth:

    Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

    That’s Laurence J Peter, and it’s a quote so succinct and powerful that Jeff Conklin puts it, in large print, above the title of his pamphlet on wicked problems:

    conklin-cover-wicked-problems

    The simple truth is that the truth is complex, beyond the minds of elites and morons, deplorables and desirables alike.

    **

    Next, the untruth:

    The untruth is in a view down the nose from one human person at another, or at a group, a crowd, a mob — a diversity of others.

    Clinton:

    You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables’. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic – you name it.

    Romney:

    There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. .. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. .. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

    Such sentiments remind me irresistably of the Magnificat — given here in my own version:

    He is not one who is ashamed to show his strength,
    and buffets proud folk about like leaves in a gale.
    He upsets those that hold themselves high and mighty
    and rescues the least one of us.
    He feeds the hungry,
    and tells the rich they can go fetch their own food.

    **

    And then the nuance..

    Let’s start with the fact that I’m a snob. I’m an almost equal-opportunity despiser. I prefer not to act on my snobbery, except when choosing which sorts of books and music I wish to consume, but it’s there in me, like an undertow, like an unrest.

    Now we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s the setup, as described in What Washington Gets Wrong:

    73 percent of government officials think the public knows little or nothing about programs aimed at helping the poor, 71 percent of them think the public knows little or nothing about science and technology policy, and 61 percent of them think the public knows almost nothing about childcare. In fact, when it comes to fundamental policy areas like social security, public schools, crime, defense and the environment, it was hard to find government officials who thought the public knew “a great deal.”

    Assuming Americans know so little, government officials tend to use their own judgment rather than the people’s when making policy decisions. With issues of science and defense, more than half of officials think they should “always” or “mostly” heed their own opinions. With crime, welfare and the environment, at least 42 percent of officials who felt the same way.

    Okay, first off, government officials — how well do they stack up?

    This is from Counterpunch — it’s a succinct summary of a Jeff Stein piece from the New York Times:

    There are very few people in the U.S. government who understand basic Islamic history or even regard it as important. In 2002 Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the incoming chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was asked by a reporter whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite. “Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he responded stupidly. And what about Lebanon’s Hizbollah? “Hizbollah. Uh, Hizbollah . . . Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o’clock?” He later added, “Speaking only for myself, it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.” Obviously the Intelligence Committee chairman was unaware that Hizbollah is a Shiite organization aligned with Shiite Iran and Shiite-led Syria against al-Qaeda-type Sunni Islamist forces.

    Jeff Stein, the national security editor of Congressional Quarterly, wrote a New York Times op-ed in 2002 highlighting the (bipartisan) ignorance among Washington “counterterrorism officials” including key Congressional committee members about the divisions within Islam. He had asked many of them the fundamental question, “What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” and was shocked by their responses. “Most American officials I’ve interviewed,” he concluded, “don’t have a clue.” Rep. Jo Ann Davis, Republican Congresswoman from Virginia then heading the subcommittee overseeing much of the CIA’s work with Muslim assets, told Stein, “The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa.” (In other words, all Muslims are radical; it’s just a question of degree. Talk about Islamophobia. And talk about ignorance!)

    Alabama Republican Congressman Terry Everett, head of a subcommittee on tactical intelligence, told Stein after some briefing, “I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something. Now that you’ve explained it to me, what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult.” In 2001, after FBI counterterrorism chief Gary Bald had publicly revealed his ignorance about Islam, FBI spokesman John Miller declared such knowledge to be unnecessary, and indeed made it a point to belittle it. “A leader needs to drive the organization forward,” he told Stein. “If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. … Playing ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit’ was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It’s just a gimmick.”

    That was in 2006, ten years after Osama bin Laden’s Decxlaration of War against the United States, and five years after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

    In fact, one might say, when it comes to fundamental policy areas like defense.. government officials aren’t necessarily terribly savvy. And I’m relieved to know that by March 2014, at least, the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, knew that ISIS has an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.”

    Of course, if Dabiq falls, as it very soon many, that strategic vision may get stretched to breaking point..

    **

    So much for government officials. What of the general population, down on whom those paragons of virtue look?

    In November 2002, a year after the 9/11 attacks, according to National Geographic News:

    In a nation called the world’s superpower, only 17 percent of young adults in the United States could find Afghanistan on a map, according to a new worldwide survey released today.

    Ast forward to 2006, and a National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs Geographic Literacy Study of American youth between ages 18 and 24 finds:

    Six in ten (63%) cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, despite near-constant news coverage since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. Three-quarters cannot find Indonesia on a map ñ even after images of the tsunami and the damage it caused to this region of the world played prominently across televisions screens and in the pages of print media over many months in 2005. Three-quarters (75%) of young men and women do not know that a majority of Indonesiaís population is Muslim (making it the largest Muslim country in the world), despite the prominence of this religion in global news today. Neither wars nor natural disasters appear to have compelled majorities of young adults to absorb knowledge about international places in the news.

    Of course, that’s young people.

    Young people today .. if you want to dismiss these findsings .. or young people are our future .. if you want to let the impact settle in.

    **

    Here, for my convenience, is a map kindly provided by The Washington Post in 2013, in an intriguing Ezra Klein piece aptly titled Most Americans can’t find Syria on a map. So what?

    syria-on-the-map

    Maybe Firesign Theater had it right when they titled their 1971 album: I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.


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