Bragging TheBlaze Journalist Shoots at ISIS, Endangers Real War Correspondents

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TheBlaze journalist Jason Buttrill claims to be shooting at IS (Photo from his Twitter)

This post has been updated

TheBlaze published an article on Thursday with a provocative headline boasting that one of their journalists filmed himself “shooting at ISIS”—a clear violation of the spirit of international law that protects journalists as non-combatants.

The journalist, Jason Buttrill, tweeted in detail about his experience willingly entering offensive operations against IS (Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL), bragging that he “got off 6 shots. ISIS looked like ants on that scope, but my USMC PMI was exceptional.” PMI refers to Primary Marksmanship Instruction, or the training he received in Boot Camp.

As he is a former Marine, I would assume that Buttrill is familiar with the basic concepts of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)—training all U.S. service members receive, often in Boot Camp or Basic Training. A main principle of LOAC is distinction: distinguishing combatants from non-combatants. Non-combatants include civilians, prisoners of war, and wounded personnel removed from combat.

International Law is clear in its distinction of journalists as non-combatants to protect them from being targeted in war. However, when one picks up a weapon and fires it without provocation, like Buttrill did, one becomes a combatant and a legal target. Buttrill can no longer claim non-combatant status as a journalist. If he did, he would be in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which classifies feigning non-combatant status as perfidy—the same thing as pretending to surrender and then ambushing your enemy.

Buttrill should and likely does know better. But when presented with an opportunity for a photograph of him simulating combat, he did what lots of non-combat arms (and even, admittedly, some combat arms) military members do: take the picture, professionalism be damned.

If Buttrill wants to see combat so bad, he should join one of the many militias accepting American volunteers that are currently fighting IS, like the Lions of Rojava. Instead, he is just one of many pretenders getting their kicks as war tourists.

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Jason Buttrill with Peshmerga (Photo from his Twitter)

It was the gruesome and public deaths of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of IS in 2014 that galvanized the Western public against them. The cruelty and injustice of murdering two American civilians—non-combatants—made the fight against IS personal for many.

Unfortunately, because of Buttrill’s foolish and selfish actions, he has tainted the professionalism of all journalists in the region. IS rather infamously has access to the internet and social media too.

For the reward of a few seconds of adolescent excitement, Buttrill has discredited hundreds of real journalists that have risked their life to do their job for us—some, like Foley, Sotloff, and dozens of others sacrificed their lives. By publishing this video, photos, and tweeting about it, Buttrill discredits them and gives IS the moral authority to treat journalists as combatants.

Update:

Politico is reporting that TheBlaze has recalled Buttrill from Iraq and suspending him from further field assignments.

The statement from Mercury Radio Arts, which owns TheBlaze, reads:

Jason Buttrill is a valued researcher for Mercury Radio Arts for a television show that airs on TheBlaze network. Given his military and security background, Mr. Buttrill was offered the opportunity for an important research assignment in Iraq. Due to his conduct, Mercury Radio Arts has recalled him back to the US. He has been suspended from further field research assignments.

What We Can Learn from T.E. Lawrence About Today’s Middle East Policy

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I recently stumbled across an article in Foreign Policy written by James Stravadis titled How Would Lawrence of Arabia Defeat the Islamic StateAs a researcher who writes about Islamic State (IS) and a personal fan of Lawrence (my dog is named T.E.), this type of article was right up my alley.

If you could use a refresher, T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia” after the 1962 Oscar-winning film of the same title, was a British Army officer who successfully trained and equipped an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War 1. With an army of irregulars, he employed guerrilla warfare against the Ottomans, blowing up trains, attacking and melting away — he led the same type of insurgency the United States has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade.

What was so special about Lawrence was his deep understanding of both Arab and Ottoman societies. He was a British intelligence officer working as cartographer and archaeologist in the Middle East when World War 1 broke out. He was sent to liaise with Arabs from the Hashemite tribe in present day Saudi Arabia who the British thought might be sympathetic to their anti-Ottoman war effort.

Lawrence’s appointment was supposed to be temporary until a replacement could be sent, but he ended up nearly single-handedly (from a Western perspective — there were thousands of Arabs involved) leading a revolt in the desert. In the vernacular of today, we would say he was a special operator training and advising local national fighters. (One might imagine that today an Obama Administration official would make the distinction that he was involved in “non-combat operations” despite the numerous raids he went on.)

That Lawrence was so successful in working with Arab groups to successfully implement Western policy in the Middle East is what draws our attention to him today. Many of the candidates in this year’s American presidential election called for the creation of a Sunni Arab coalition to fight IS. Stravadis’s article recommends we rely on our Sunni allies as well — namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, and Egypt. But the war against IS today reflects a different reality.

The aforementioned countries minus Oman are currently caught up in a war in Yemen, while Egypt is dealing with its own insurgency in the Sinai. Meanwhile, in the military intervention against IS, Jordan has participated in only token air strikes against Syria –mostly after one of their pilots was executed in a brutal and widely plublicized video. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have participated in Syria, but only nominally. President Barack Obama has been forthright in his opinion that our Sunni allies need to do more, but we should also remember that those five countries’ defense budgets combined is about $110 billion, or only about 15% of what the US spends.

“While Kurds and Shiites are the most organized fighters now and that makes them a convenient ally, one must take into consideration what the ultimate goals are for these groups.”

Instead, what the US has done (after twin failed Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency train and equip programs in Syria) is make the Kurds of northern Syria and northern Iraq along with the Shiites of southern Iraq our de facto fighting force against IS. Our new baby in Syria, a coalition of militias in Syria called the “Syrian Democratic Forces” are mostly Kurds.  The US has also established an airfield in Kurdish-held Syria.

In Iraq, US special operations forces have also set up an airfield and outposts in Kurdish controlled areas. US troops are now operating out of an airbase near Erbil and a US Marine was killed by indirect fire from IS at an outpost in the area. Additionally, a Delta Force soldier was killed during a raid with Kurdish forces, as was more recently a Navy SEAL while training Kurds. Successful territory gaining operations against IS thus far in Tikrit were mostly comprised of Shiite militias and the Shiite Badr Corps were on the ground in the liberation of Ramadi.

So what is the lesson we can learn from Lawrence of Arabia? During the successful Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the Hashemites of Saudi Arabia were promised kingdoms in a Middle East. Faisal bin Hussein was made King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria. After being ousted by the French who had received Syria in the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, he became the first King of Iraq with the help of the British.

Faisal’s brother, Abdullah I, became the first King of Jordan after being convinced by the British not to attack the French in retaliation for removing his brother. Finally, Faisal and Abdullah’s father, Hussein bin Ali, declared himself King of the Hejaz (an area in present day Saudi Arabia), but was never recognized by the global community and the British-backed al-Saud tribe forced him to flee in 1924.

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Arab revolt fighters, 1918 (Library of Congress photo)

Today, the only remaining Hashemite ruler in the Middle East is King Abdullah II of Jordan.  The Hashemites were overthrown in Iraq in 1958 during a bloody coup resulting in the death of many members of the Hashemite family. The Sauds conquered the Arabian peninsula and created modern Saudi Arabia.

Lawrence, perhaps disgusted with how the Hashemites he fought with were essentially betrayed by the British and French governments, enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1920 under an assumed identity, distancing himself from his past identity as Colonel T.E Lawrence, leader of the Arab Revolt.

The lesson here is that the US needs to be careful about who it supports in its fight against IS. While Kurds and Shiites are the most organized fighters now and that makes them a convenient ally, one must take into consideration what the ultimate goals are for these groups. The YPG, a Kurdish militia the US is supporting in Syria, has made it known that it intends independence. Shiites in Iraq have habitually disempowered Iraqi Sunnis and will likely continue to do so.

Whether or not the US plans acquiesce its current allies plans for self-determination, it must be prepared for the next conflict after IS is defeated. It is unlikely that in a post-IS world, empowered and well-armed Kurds will willingly return to the old status quo. Similarly, it is not a stretch to imagine Sunnis in formerly IS-held areas to rebel against their Shiite conquerors. Much of our modern turmoil in the Middle East is thought to be related the failed promises and poor planning of the post-conflict after the Arab revolt —and it has lasted nearly a century. Are we prepared for another hundred years of conflict in the Middle East?

 

Book Review for A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962

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A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1952-1962 by Alistair Horne was recommended to me by retired Army officer and professor of international studies, Lt. Col. John Fishel, in one of my undergraduate classes called “Small Wars” for good reason: the 20th Century French war is eminently relatable to the savage wars of peace involving Western powers and Arab states that continue today.

If you are ignorant of the French war in Algeria or French history in general (as I was or am; the extent of my exposure to the war was from a memoir of a Legionnaire during that time and the famous film, The Battle of Algiers), this book is difficult at first. It took me many months to get through the background and the beginning of the war. Even so, poignant prose is generously sprinkled among the unfamiliar names and places. Passages such as the following highlight the incredible amount of research in the book:

Early on, when dressed in plain clothes [General Jacques de Bollardière] had been shocked to overhear a young cavalry officer remark, “In Algiers, now, there is nothing but genuine chaps, paras, the Legion, fine big blond fellows, stalwarts not sentimentalists.”

Bollardière intervened: “Doesn’t that remind you of anything, des grands gars blonds, pas sentimentaux?” 

The young officer replied, quite unashamedly: “If I had been in Germany at that moment, I too would have been a Nazi.”

But by the last third of the book — being now more familiar with the actors — the intrigue of the attempted coups, assassinations, and near fall of the French republic (and possible civil war and rise of a fascist state) turned this history into a legitimate page turner. What a fascinating time that most Americans are unaware of!

To me, the most important parts of this book are those that deal with French torture and how it affected the service members performing it, the French national psyche, and most importantly: the war effort. Strong parallels to American wars in Arab states continue today, from the widely publicized American experiment with torture in Iraq to current presidential candidates promising a policy of torture once again. Donald Trump would be wise to read this book.

But lessons are also to be found in the way counterinsurgency wars are fought. Even with comparatively relaxed rules of engagement, the French were still unable to neutralize the National Liberation Front (FLN) due many factors including cross border safety areas, the war’s disastrous effects on regular civilians, and the indomitable spirit of what these young Arabs were fighting for: a new way of life. The Napoleon Bonaparte quote, “There are only two powers in the world. . .the sword and the spirt. In the long run, the sword is always defeated by the spirit. . . .” is aptly applied here. Current leaders of the campaign against Islamic State would be wise to take these lessons into consideration.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest, but I now consider it required reading for those involved in security studies in the Middle East/North Africa: students, government employees, think tankers, soldiers, etc. This one belongs in your library.

What ISIS Really (Really) Wants

AQMI_Flag_asymmetric.svgIn light of increased Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) foreign terrorism, especially in Europe, I have seen a piece from The Atlantic titled “What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood experience a resurgence in popularity. Last week it was the second most popular article on the site, despite it being a year old. In the piece, Wood made the argument that despite foolish United States government statements to the contrary, IS really was very Islamic and must be viewed with a theological lens to truly understand and counter it.

At the time, the piece filled a vacuum in long form analysis on what was a seemingly unstoppable al-Qaida separatist group. IS had captured both significant amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria and the attention of most Americans with its beheading video of American James Foley. Americans were now acutely aware of the strength of the group that President Barack Obama had attempted to downplay by calling “al-Qaida’s jayvee team.” Wood’s piece helped provide some context for the target of a new US war in the Middle East after attempting to withdraw from the region.

The piece was controversial when published, but with the benefit of a year of hindsight, I do not think that its central argument holds up well.

IS Not Very Islamic After All

It has become evident that many of the IS rank and file, especially those performing terrorist attacks like the ones in Paris and Belgium, are not particularly pious. Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, the two brothers responsible for the Brussels bombings, were not very religious. Nor was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the Paris attacks, who was known to regularly drink alcohol and use drugs — activities few if any Muslim religious leaders condone.

Mohamad Khweis, an American jihadist who was recently captured by the Kurdish Peshmerga as he attempted to desert, told reporters that IS’s religious ideology was too intense for him, complaining of how he could not smoke. And two British jihadists arrested upon returning from fighting in Syria were found to have bought Islam for Dummies — indicating their relatively new appreciation for Islam.

“Wood’s piece is not mansplaining, but it comes close to something like secularsplaining: ‘Dear Muslims, allow me to explain to you your religion.’”

But it is not just low-level fighters that might not be as Islamic as Wood claims. It has been reported that some of the IS senior leadership is made up of former Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since Ba’athism is a secular pan-Arabist ideology, either these leaders were closeted Islamists before, they are only recent converts, or they are fighting for IS for non-religious reasons (like a Shi’a-dominated, Iran-influenced, anti-Ba’athist government in Baghdad.)

Furthermore, the examples of pious Islamists that Wood interviewed, such as Anjem Choudhry, are not even proper IS members. While they may indeed be committed Islamists who openly endorse an IS caliphate, the fact remains that they are not living in IS territory or fighting for them, despite IS calls for their sympathizers unable to emigrate to launch attacks in the countries where they reside. On Twitter, many IS fighters chastise those who have not emigrated. I suspect that most actual IS fighters would deem people like Choudhry and his ilk to be pretenders in the same way that US military members have no great love for young Americans who profess to want to fight IS, but will not enlist.

The Obama Administration Is Right

A major point of contention from Wood is that the Obama Administration is purposely  calling IS un-Islamic not as a reflection of reality but for purposes of messaging. Because the administration does not correctly identify IS as very Islamic, it makes bad predictions. While I think the benefit of time has helped show that IS is not as Islamic as Wood thought it was, it is completely true that the Obama Administration made a conscious choice not to use “Islamic” when describing IS for political reasons — and they are right for doing so.

We must be realistic in acknowledging that most Americans would not understand the nuance in top government officials saying things like, “Yes, IS is Islamic but so are millions of practicing Muslims in the US who do not want to create a caliphate or cut off anyone’s head.”

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IS fighters from IS social media

Islamophobia is on the rise in the US and it is evident by recent murders of Muslim Americans and current Republican anti-Muslim rhetoric. Since it is the government’s responsibility to protect Americans, it does have to be careful with its messaging when discussing IS, lest it be used to fuel bigotry and a Trump rally turns into a Kristallnacht against Muslims.

Secularsplaining Islam

The last problem with Wood’s piece is that Islam is what Muslims do. If 99% of Muslims are not doing what IS does, then how Islamic can it be? It would be more accurate to describe the actions of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims as Islamic than the relative handful of militants in Iraq, Syria, et al. performing the atrocities that make us so fearful.

When non-Muslims start making judgements on how Islamic a certain group of Muslims are, we straddle a thin line between useful thought exercise and absurdity — this is a problem with Orientalism in general. I think it would be difficult for Wood to defend his position in a room with 100 British Muslims. So when we as non-Muslims wonder about Islam, or what religiously motivates those who kill in the name of Islam, perhaps we should ask actual Muslims instead of relying solely on non-Muslim journalists.

“IS is, among other things, a youth movement.”

In feminist discourse there is a term called “mansplaining” which is used to describe a man explaining something to a woman in a condescending or patronizing way. Wood’s piece is not mansplaining, but it comes close to something like secularsplaining: “Dear Muslims, allow me to explain to you your religion.”

What IS Really Really Wants

So then what does IS really want? This is the part where I disappoint you: IS cannot “want” anything because it is not a cognizant being. When we talk about IS as an agent instead of a group of tens of thousands with varying interests we are utilizing a form of folk psychology that simplifies group complexities to make sense of the world and predict behavior.

If a group cannot truly want anything, and IS elites — from the al-Qaida in Iraq old guard to the ex-Ba’athists — are likely are not homogenous in their goals, then this line of questioning seems futile. If many of its young members were not religious before joining, then perhaps we are not fighting Islam that has been radicalized, but radicalization that has been Islamized.

IS is, among other things, a youth movement. The average age of a European jihadist has dropped from 27.7 when al-Qaida was the dominant jihadist group from 2001-2009 to just 20 years old today. As Cormac McCarthy wrote, war “endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.” What if the question is not what IS wants, but rather what do the young men (and women) joining IS want?

Instead of wondering how we can make ourselves safe from Muslims, maybe we should figure out how to assist in providing a meaningful life to a generation of Arabs both in the Middle East and Europe who have been marginalized. Young men have always willingly given their lives to save those of their countrymen. What does it say about the societies in Europe and the Arab states that tens of thousands of young people are more eagerly self-identifying with a murderous extra-legal organization in a war zone than the countries in which they reside?

Attacks Kill 120 and Wound Over 700 This Week Yet Public Outcry Scarce

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The world’s insurgentsia have been unusually active this week with attacks in Tunisia, Israel, Iraq, Turkey, and Ivory Coast. Interestingly, there has not been much public outcry (if any) in response to any of these attacks in the Western media — certainly not to the extent that the attacks at the Bataclan and elsewhere in Paris last November received. Nor have these attacks garnered the attention of the Charlie Hebdo attacks before that, despite some being similar in nature, i.e. targeting Western civilians. So, in case you missed it:

Last Monday, Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) fighters attacked army and police posts in the town of Ben Gardane in Tunisia killing 12 soldiers and seven civilians. Ben Gardane is close to the border with Libya and known for being a hotbed of jihadist recruitment. If the town fell to IS, it could establish another transnational control area like the one they enjoy in Iraq and Syria.

On Tuesday, stabbing attacks by a Hamas member in the Israeli city of Jaffa killed one American and injured twelve others. The American was 28 year old Taylor Force, an MBA student at Vanderbilt University, former Army officer, and West Point graduate. Today, four Israeli security forces members were injured in an attack by Palestinian gunmen at a security checkpoint near the entrance of an Israeli settlement near Hebron in the West Bank. These attacks are part of a surge of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories that have resulted in the deaths of 30 Israelis and roughly 180-200 Palestinians that some are calling the “Third Intifada”.

In Iraq, there were two attacks this week by IS using chemical weapons in the Shiite village of Taza, near Kirkuk, a region controlled by Kurdish militias. Reports suggest as many as 600 injured. According to the Department of Defense, IS is using chlorine and mustard gas in its attacks, which it is likely manufacturing itself. Last month, the head of the IS chemical weapons program was captured in a raid by US special operations forces. Additionally, 47 Iraqi soldiers were killed by IS in attacks near the recently liberated city of Ramadi.

In Ivory Coast, an attack most like the Paris attacks occurred. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters attacked a beach resort in the city of Grand Bassam yesterday, killing at least 14 civilians and two soldiers. Four of the victims were Westerners, including one French and a German national. The beach resort was likely targeted because it is popular amongst Westerners. This is not the first attack by AQIM this year: in January, AQIM-affiliated group al-Murabitun attacked a hotel popular with Westerners in Burkina Faso, killing 30 and wounding 56.

Finally, 37 were killed and dozens more injured in a suicide car bombing in the Turkish capital of Ankara yesterday. The Turkish government claims a male and female member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were responsible. The target was a busy bus stop and mostly civilians were killed. In response, Turkey has begun airstrikes on Kurdish militia camps in northern Iraq.

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Protesters in Luxembourg in response the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris (Jwh/Wikimedia Commons)

The combined death toll of just these attacks this week is 57 civilians, 61 military, with over 700 wounded.  The civilian deaths are only about half that of the November 2015 Paris attacks, but almost five times as many as the Charlie Hebdo attack. Of course, only a small fraction of the attacks were on Westerners and none were in Europe. After years of violence, one might understand why Westerners would be numb to attacks in the Middle East and perhaps even in Africa, despite these victims also being human beings. But as one Ankara foreign resident pointed out, why do Westerners feel nothing for Turkey?

“It is very easy to look at terror attacks that happen in London, in New York, in Paris and feel pain and sadness for those victims, so why is it not the same for Ankara? Is it because you just don’t realise that Ankara is no different from any of these cities? Is it because you think that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, like Syria, like Iraq, like countries that are in a state of civil war, so therefore it must be the same and because you don’t care about those ones, then why should you care about Turkey? If you don’t believe that these attacks in Ankara affect you, or you can’t feel the same pain you felt during the Paris or London attacks, then maybe you should stop to think why, why is it that you feel like that.”

Perhaps we should take a look at the numbers on the top of this page, take note of our feelings, and think, “why?”

The GOP Candidates’ Plans for Beating Islamic State Range from Contradictory to Absurd

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Presidential candidate Ted Cruz wants to “carpet bomb” Islamic State (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons photo)

The Republican candidates for president have said some provocative things about battling Islamic State (IS — also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), yet none have mapped out a plan quite as detailed as Hillary Clinton’s, which I wrote about, along with Sanders’, last month. With four Republican primaries today and another 25 to go, the remaining candidates have outlined their strategies as such:

Ted Cruz

Goal: Defeat IS while allowing the Syrian civil war play out and reserving American ground forces as a last resort

How? Cruz famously said that he would “carpet bomb” IS, but later revealed he did not know what the term meant when he elaborated — essentially describing standard close air support within the framework of legal air strikes. He has also said he wants to “bomb ISIS back to the stone age,” but this seems more like blustery talk and less like a new form of hyper-anti-counterinsurgency policy. Cruz wants to:

  • Arm the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq to defeat IS in both Iraq and Syria
  • Avoid population-centric counterinsurgency and state building in Syria
  • Focus on Iraq, not Syria, and avoid resolving the Syrian civil war

It is clear that Cruz does not want American forces to do more than bomb IS. Ironically, for someone saying Obama is not doing enough, his plan is less involved than the Obama Administration’s. He speaks of using the Peshmerga as a ground force in Iraq, but they have not and will not fight for traditionally Arab areas. It is unlikely that Cruz could defeat IS using the meager plan he has described so far. On his campaign website, his IS strategy is tellingly limited to “calling the enemy by its name – radical Islamic terrorism – and securing the border. Border security is national security.”

John Kasich

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John Kasich wants American troops in Syria now (YouTube/New America photo)

Goal: “Wipe out, degrade, and destroy” Islamic State with an American-led coalition of European and Middle Eastern allies sooner rather than later, without using American forces against Assad

How? Kasich said he wants to:

  • Utilize American, European, and Middle Eastern ground forces
  • Arm moderate rebels in Syria
  • Arm Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish militias
  • Create and enforce no-fly zones in Syria
  • Encourage regional allies to take in refugees

Kasich’s plan is firmly in the interventionist camp, but he also knows that military action alone will not defeat Islamic State. While he once called for the creation of an agency to promote “Judeo-Christian values”, he later walked back this statement, instead suggesting to “breathe life”  into Voice of America, a US-government funded news organization broadcast around the world.

However, his vision of a broad military coalition including American ground forces and no-fly zones, while not taking action to depose Assad is non-sensical. Enforcing no-fly zones in Syria means shooting down Syrian and Russian aircraft should they encroach on this hypothetical airspace. In that event, it would be very unlikely that American ground forces could avoid combat with the Syrian Arab Army.

Marco Rubio

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Rubio sees the world through the eyes of an early 2000s Neocon (Gage Skidmore photo)

Goal: The US-led defeat of IS in a post-Assad Syria as part of a larger zero-sum “clash of civilizations”

How? Rubio’s plan is neatly outlined in bullet points on his campaign website, though most of “his” plan is already being implemented by the Obama Administration. The significant policy changes he would like to pursue are:

  • Utilize American and coalition ground forces in Syria and Iraq
  • Expand air campaign and deploy American forward observers to direct airstrikes in Syria and Iraq
  • Increase training of rebels in Syria to fight Assad
  • Form safe zones in Syria
  • Directly arm Sunni and Kurdish militias in Iraq
  • Increase military action against Islamic State in Libya and Afghanistan
  • Bar entry of Iraqi and Syrian refugees into the United States

Rubio proposes the most military action of any candidate. Like the Democratic candidates, he prefers regime change in Syria. Like Hillary Clinton, he proposes safe zones, but without adequate troop commitment safe areas become the opposite.

He has called for American ground forces embedded with coalition forces, but despite his bravado and “them or us”, “fight them here or there” world view, has not offered that he would deploy American infantry battalions to fight in any country. Most worrying about Rubio’s plan is his insistence on describing the fight against IS as a clash of civilizations:

“For [Islamic State and other jihadist groups] do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East, they hate us because of our values. They hate us because young girls here go to school. They hate us because women drive. They hate us because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs. They hate us because we are a tolerant society. . .This is a clash of civilizations and either they win, or we win.”

If 9/11 and the Global War on Terrorism should have taught us anything, it is that the above quote is nonsense. Rubio is still attempting to paint the world as the Bush Administration and other Neoconservatives saw it in the early 2000s. Jihadist groups including al-Qaida and IS have told us themselves that they attack the United States because of realist security issues, not abstract cultural differences — there is not much of a mystery there.

Donald Trump

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Donald Trump wants to give Syria to Exxon and torture people (Michael Vadon photo)

Goal: Donald Trump’s envisioned end state in Iraq and Syria is unclear. If any candidate has said more senseless things about the Middle East than former candidate Ben Carson, it is Trump. Trump wants to defeat Islamic State — that much is clear.

How? Before Trump was an official candidate, he hinted at knowing a “foolproof” plan to defeat IS, but as of yet still has not enlightened us. Interestingly, in that same interview he suggested talks with IS, but a peaceful resolution has not been brought up since. Instead, he has said he wants to:

  • Expand legal authority to torture
  • Ban Muslims from entering the United States
  • Allow Assad and Russia to continue fighting IS in Syria while the US fights them in Iraq
  • Use airstrikes and ground forces to seize IS-controlled oil fields and take the oil for the US

Essentially Trump’s plan so far is three-pronged: bomb them, send in ground forces, take their oil fields. He has said it is important for the US to avoid fighting two wars at once, because it cannot win. While the last decade and a half in the greater Middle East might support his theory, it is important also to realize that wars are not what you want them to be, they are what they are. Simply because he might choose not to fight Assad does not mean Assad will not fight the US directly or via proxy, especially when his oil fields are occupied by American troops and Exxon.

It is also necessary to stress that there is no research that suggests that Trump’s plan to expand the legal authority to torture IS fighters and his suggestion that their families might also be legal targets would hasten an IS defeat. IS has partly risen in response to US torture. Indeed, IS prisoners wear orange jumpsuits to mimic Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo Bay prisoners and treatment of prisoners by Americans is frequently mentioned in IS propaganda videos.

As the French learned in the Algerian War, torture is not only counterproductive, it also “corrupts the the torturer as much as it breaks the victim.”  A quote from a French paratrooper in Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 shows the suffering of the torturer himself:

“‘All day, through the floor-boards, we heard their hoarse cries, like those of animals being slowly put to death. Sometimes I think I can still hear them. . . . All these men disappeared. . . .’ Gradually, ‘I felt myself becoming contaminated. What was more serious, I felt that the horror of all these crimes, our everyday battle, was losing force daily in my mind.’ Going on a month’s leave to Paris was like a deep breath of fresh air, and sufficient ‘to make me forget the suffering throughout poor Algeria. I felt ashamed. Ashamed of having been so happy.’”

For someone who supposedly has made veterans’ issues a high priority, he might consider  more deeply the lasting effects of war on those who serve.

 

Both Hillary and Bernie’s Plans for Fighting Islamic State Are Problematic

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Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate – ABC/Ida Mae Astute Photo

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have prioritized the threat of Islamic State (IS) in their presidential platforms, yet Clinton has provided much more detail about how she would tackle the IS problem.

In November, Clinton spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations about IS. Recently, she rightly chastised a pivoting Sanders, who dodged a question on his anti-IS strategy by talking about his Iraq invasion voting record. Clinton interjected, saying “a vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS.”

Sanders said in the most recent debate that IS was the biggest threat to the United States, over North Korea, Russia, and Iran. But on actual strategy, he has said little, acknowledging that there is no “magic wand” for fixing Syria and that Hillary Clinton has much more experience than him.

Here is how the Democratic candidates’ strategies against IS breakdown:

Hillary Clinton

Goal: “Defeat and destroy” Islamic State by intensifying and accelerating current strategy, but keep American combat troops at home

How? Clinton wants to start a new phase of anti-IS operations that would “deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria.” In Syria, she wants to:

  • Rely on local Sunni troops to engage in infantry combat against IS
  • Increase deployment of special operations forces (SOF) and allow SOF to support allies with air strikes
  • Enforce “coalition” no-fly zones on the Turkish/Syrian border against Assad’s air force in partnership with the Russian air force
  • Lock down the Turkish/Syrian border to prevent refugees from entering Europe
  • Support a Syrian-led democratic transition away from Assad

“We have to try to clear the air of the bombing attacks that are still being carried out to a limited extent by the Syrian military, now supplemented by the Russian air force.”

Hillary Clinton 11/19/15

What about Iraq? In Iraq, Clinton plans to:

  • Allow troops in Iraq training Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to embed in Iraqi units and help target air strikes
  • Arm Sunni and Kurdish forces in Iraq (with or without Baghdad’s approval)

Outcome: A post-Assad democratic Syria and Iraq where IS controls no territory

Bernie Sanders

Goal: Defeat IS while not repeating the mistakes of the war in Iraq using a coalition led by Middle Eastern allies

How? Sanders has made it clear that he thinks the destruction of IS is a “struggle for the soul of Islam” that must be led by Muslim nations with support from global partners. He wants to:

  • Support a Syrian-led democratic transition away from Assad
  • Create a NATO-like international organization to confront the threats of the 21st century and defeat violent extremism
  • Obtain a commitment from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE to make the fight against IS their priority
  • Arm Iraqi Kurdish militias

Outcome: A post-Assad democratic Syria and a Middle East where IS is defeated largely by their own efforts

There are some confusing aspects to Clinton’s IS strategy — namely, her enthusiasm for no-fly zones. She wants to stop the bombing of civilians by both Assad and Russia, but also wants to partner with Russia to enforce this hypothetical no-fly zone (who would thereby be abandoning their number one ally in the Middle East). These no-fly zones would serve to protect refugees, who would not be allowed to leave Syria because in her ideal world the Turkish border is locked down.

“It is more difficult to find flaws in Sanders’ strategy because he has not outlined much of one.”

Additionally, Clinton’s plan to arm and train Sunni and Kurdish militias in Iraq with our without Baghdad’s approval is a bit troubling. After IS is defeated, what incentive do these militias have to disarm and re-enter the Shi’a dominated Iraqi political system?

It is more difficult to find flaws in Sanders’ strategy because he has not outlined much of one. In the last debate he said he agreed with most of Clinton’s strategy, yet hardly elaborated. It is clear that Sanders does not want the US to lead operations against IS and instead would rather pressure other nations to take a more active role in the region. Essentially, his strategy is entirely dependent on external forces.

I find it interesting that he supports arming the Peshmerga in Iraq but no other militias in Iraq or Syria. I wonder if this was simply a matter of misspeaking or if he specifically supports the Peshmerga for some reason.

Clinton seems more prepared to take over Operation Inherent Resolve than Sanders. Unfortunately, whether or not her plan is ultimately more effective than Sanders’ “Can’t someone else do it?” approach will never be tested, because only one of them can become Commander-in-Chief in November — and neither might.

Battling the Hydra: The Growing War Against Islamic State

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Coalition airstrike on Islamic State position in Kobane in October, 2014 – Voice of America photo

Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford Jr. announced that the United States and its allies have increased intelligence gathering in Libya in preparation for a possible expansion of the war against Islamic State (IS). A decision is expected to come within “weeks.”

Fifteen months ago I began this blog partly as a reaction to a comment by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about IS: “I think we’re looking at a kind of 30-year war.” Then I was worried about inevitable mission creep in Iraq and the concept of a forever war in general.

Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return.

Since that post the operation against Islamic State was at least named. Indeed, it did take a year to train the Iraqi Security Forces to a level where they could begin a successful ground operation against IS — Ramadi was retaken last month. There are more optimistic signs as well: IS was recently forced to cut its fighters’ salaries in response to financial troubles likely including oil prices and the US-led coalition bombing campaign on its oil infrastructure. As the Taliban has been finding out with IS in Afghanistan, fighters will often go to whomever pays the most.

But the war against IS is not racing to a speedy conclusion by any means. Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return. The world was shocked at IS’s reach last November during the Paris attacks. Though some (including this author) were skeptical that those attacks were from IS command and control, IS has released video evidence of the attackers planning the attacks while in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, Europol expects more attacks in the future.

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Paris attackers from Dabiq, Islamic State’s e-zine

In Syria, IS launched an offensive in Deir el-Zour, capturing an army base, weapons depots, and killing at least 300 people. If they succeed in capturing all of Deir el-Zour, they will control two provincial capitals in Syria (the other being the IS capital, Raqqa) — a major blow for Assad (and Russia’s) Syrian Arab Army.

With a likely expansion of the war against IS into Libya, Panetta’s 30-year prediction is looking better. One year down, IS does not seem too much more degraded or destroyed than a year ago. And though Obama said then that the war against IS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” there has since been a Delta Force soldier killed combat in against IS.

As we enter the final year of Obama’s presidency, the rhetoric from the likely candidates on both sides foretells an increased operations tempo — both Hillary Clinton and her opponents have been falling over themselves to explain how they would win the war against IS — from Ted Cruz’s “carpet bombing” to Donald Trump’s “kill terrorists’ families” to Clinton’s “intensification,” it does not appear that this war will end any time soon.

What Does It Mean to Retake Ramadi?

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(Reuters/Stringer Photo)

By now we have learned the Iraqi Special Operation Forces (ISOF)-led operation to take Ramadi back from Islamic State (IS) has been mostly successful, retaking the government center and leaving only the eastern part of the city in IS control. In print, these words are sterile, devoid of context or richer meaning. A city “falling” reminds us of a domino toppling—a swift, deft, inevitable culmination of a small amount of external energy and a large amount of natural law.

Yet for the soldiers on the ground taking a city is an arduous crawl perfused by hidden dangers. When I was in Iraq, I never had to do the type of brutal house to house clearing that ISOF is doing now so it is difficult for me to conceptualize. But even during training, stacking outside of a door at a shoot house always brought an adrenaline-laden feeling of excitement of anticipation and nervousness of uncertainty. Luckily, VICE News has been producing some of the best mini-documentaries on the wars in Iraq and Syria to date.

In their latest video, Retaking Ramadi From the Islamic State: The Battle for Iraq (Dispatch 11), a journalist embedded with the Iraqi Golden Division (ISOF) describes the then-ongoing conflict for the city center. With bodies littering the streets, sniper teams take shots from rooftops and troops discover IS tunnels and caches.

What is most striking about this video to me is the role of the United States in this battle. In an interview, an Iraqi soldier describes the coalition airstrikes they relied on:

We should thank the Russians, because they encouraged America to increase their bombing. They helped our forces. Any place they find a threat to us, they [the US-led coalition] hit. We’ve started to give them coordinates—whatever coordinates we give them to hit, they blow up. It’s not like before [emphasis added.]

For me, thinking about this quote starts a long chain of causal relationships. Without the United States, the Iraqi government would likely not have retaken Ramadi. So are the US’s renewed efforts in Iraq good, just, necessary? In this instance, limited to this battle, it seems obvious. But during an interview with a masked ISOF member about sectarianism, this clarity on the US’s role becomes more ambiguous.

Warning: the following section contains graphic description of torture:

Do you want me to tell you how the militants kidnapped me? They took me to a house, they hung me upside down and lashed me. Then they took me down and put two nails and held me to the wall, another here [points to wrist] to hold my other arm. They got pliers and pulled out my nails. I fainted every time they pulled a nail, but they made sure I was awake before pulling the next one. He also cut my forehead, making a long cut across my forehead. He wanted to cut off my face. Unbelievable. What’s wrong with them? I kept saying I don’t work for the Americans.

In this instance it is his involvement with America that makes him the target for abduction and torture. And worse, the Shi’a militia that captured him is part of the side that we are backing against the Sunni IS. Much of the sectarian strife in Iraq was caused by the 2003 invasion. So much for moral clarity.

The Evolution of an Insurgent

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Islamic State commander, Hassan Aboud, from a YouTube video

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a piece by C.J. Chivers on the rise of Islamic State’s Hassan Aboud. Aboud was a cement hauler in 2011 before Syria’s revolution, but he was prepared. A combination of connections and training in 2005 in Iraq with Zarqawi’s AQI along with an apparently well equipped cache of supplies made him one of Syria’s top rebel commanders  in 2012. He attracted the attention of IS and made the choice to pledge bayat. Today’s he is another middle manager in IS whose brigade has likely fought in Aleppo, Kobani, Homs, and Palmyra.

Chiver’s piece is richly detailed for such a notoriously shadowing organization and I highly recommend it for anyone who is curious about the transformation of insurgents—in this case from cement hauler to emir in the Islamic State. Aboud’s story reminds me of a quote from Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

“Behind the Black Flag: The Recruitment of an ISIS Killer” by C.J. Chivers