Canada’s Train and Equip Mission in Iraq Turns Offensive (Like Always)

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Canadian special operations forces scan the horizon (Canadian Armed Forces photo)

Canadian special forces in Northern Iraq are performing offensive operations against Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) according to Canadian military officials. Lt. Col. Stephen Hunter, commander of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR), told reporters on Monday that Canadian troops have sometimes shot first in engagements with IS when Kurdish forces were not present.

“Because they have demonstrated hostile intent, we’re able, through our rules of engagement, to use our own weapons systems to engage that kind of threat,” said Hunter. This sort of preventive attack in the name of self-defense is the same justification U.S. forces use in Afghanistan to attack the Taliban two years after “combat operations” ended.

But the revelation that Canadian soldiers are attacking IS is significant because Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau supposedly ended combat operations in Syria last March. He announced the Canada would suspend its bombing operations and instead focus on training and defending allied forces—namely the Kurds.

Canada, like the U.S., is succumbing to mission creep—even with a left-leaning Prime Minister who vowed to take Canadians out of combat. Similarly, what started as a deployment of an extra 275 personnel to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as IS quickly took territory in Iraq has become well over 5,000 in both Iraq and Syria.

It is important to identify that the idea that U.S. and Canadian forces can engage in offensive operations under the authority of self defense is doublespeak. A similar blurring of the meanings of words occurred when former President George W. Bush used the concept of preemptive war to embroil the U.S. in Iraq from which now the American government seems unable to disentangle itself.

The American and Canadian examples show that it is not only the Russian government that utilizes their military overtly while saying they are not (as they did during the annexation of Crimea and are doing in Syria). We must hold our governments accountable when they tell us one thing and do another.

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Canadian Joint Task Force 2 assault demonstration (Patrick Cardinal photo)

It is more important now more than ever as the Trump Administration prepares to move into the White House heralding an era many have coined as “post-truth“. Liberals in American society allowed President Obama to do things they found unsavory, like expanded surveillance, extra-judicial killing, and re-intervening in Iraq because they trusted him. Likewise, conservatives are already turning blind eye to President-elect Trump’s admission of intention to break campaign promises.

Interestingly, public support of the war against IS is rising. Recent polls have suggested that Canadians are overwhelmingly in favor of utilizing ground troops against IS while American opinion is mixed but growing. With the support of their citizens, one wonders why the governments of Canada and the U.S. use doublespeak regarding their military operations.

It appears that in a (debatable) post-Cold War world, it is not just the Russians embracing deception operations. We as a people must decide whether we find this in accordance with our democratic values. Malcolm X said, “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified U.S. forces as Canadians

Russia, U.S. Reach Agreement as Syrian Forces Falter

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Syrian Marines (Photo from Abkhazian Network News Agency)

Secretary of State John Kerry announced a deal with Russia on Friday to “reduce violence, ease suffering and resume movement toward a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria.” The agreement includes a cessation of hostilities starting September 12th, the end of Russia targeting non-Nusra (Jabhat al-Nusra, recently rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the al-Qaida offshoot in Syria) opposition forces, restrictions on the Syrian Air Force, unimpeded humanitarian access and a demilitarized zone in Aleppo.

In exchange for this, the United States will work jointly with Russia to target Nusra together. Whether this is a good deal or not is yet to be seen. Secretary Kerry says the deal “has the ability to be a turning point—a moment of change.” There have been different reactions on Twitter:

But why have the Russians agreed to a deal with the US now? Perhaps a clue lies in the fact that the tone has begun to change online about Russia’s intervention in Syria, where just months ago it was considered a victory by many.

In a piece written for Gazeta.ru, an online publication whose editor was replaced by a pro-government appointee during Putin’s media crackdown in 2013 and 2014, a retired Russian officer argues that “it is impossible to win the war with such an ally as Assad’s army.”

He describes a Syrian Arab Army that is too small, undisciplined, unmotivated, and corrupt to defeat the “illegal armed groups” (such as the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces) it is fighting. While Assad’s army mans checkpoints and extorts the local population, “the actual fighting against opposition groups is mostly done by Syrian militias, the Lebanese Hezbollah Shia units, Iranian and Iraqi volunteers and Private Military Companies.”

The Russian officer goes as far as to suggest the only hope for Russia is to disband Assad’s army and reform a new one from scratch—though he admits the political will to finance such an endeavor is absent.

Similarly, The Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani published a piece today backtracking on his prediction that the Syrian insurgency would soon be impotent. After some impressive successes post-Russian air campaign, Syrian forces now appear unable to hold their newly occupied territory.

If Russia has decided that it cannot depend on local forces to maintain the territory that it has won for them and it does not wish to commit its own ground forces, then a deal with the US is prudent.

 

Itani observes that the biggest problem Assad faces is manpower. The Aleppo siege was broken by a relatively small force of an estimated 4,000 rebels and the recent successes by opposition forces in Hama province may involve as little as 2,500 rebels, yet Assad’s forces have been unfit to counter. It appears that Assad is unable to hold two fronts simultaneously.

If Russia has decided that it cannot depend on local forces to maintain the territory that it has won for them and it does not wish to commit its own ground forces, then a deal with the US is prudent.

While touted as a success by the State Department, Russia likely sees this deal as a win for them: they get help from the United States Air Force while their client, the Syrian Arab Air Force, gets a break. The Gazeta piece claims that the Syrian Arab Air Force is rundown, lacking sufficient manpower, aircraft, and ordinance.

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Destruction in Azaz, near Aleppo (Wikimedia Commons photo)

The much published “barrel bombs” are a result of a scarcity of real bombs and both pilot training and aircraft maintenance has effectively ceased due to war restrictions.

Any deal to reduce suffering in Syria—even temporarily—is a good one. Humanitarian access to the destroyed city of Aleppo is desperately needed. But joint Russian/US strikes on Nusra, while in the US’s interest, also serve to help Assad. As is now unfortunately common in the Syrian conflict, efforts to end the war by pressuring one actor only seem to help prolong it by unintentionally benefiting two or more other actors who may or may not be aligned.

Such has been the fate of Syria for the last five and a half years. Decisive victory, for any side, still remains a distant goal.

Google Uses One Weird Trick to Dissuade Would-Be Islamic State Recruits

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Google has developed a program it hopes will use a combination of search advertising algorithms and targeted YouTube videos to dissuade would-be recruits from traveling to Syria to join Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL).

The project was created by Google’s in-house tech incubator, Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas). Called “Redirect Method”, when search terms that Google predicts someone who might be curious about joining IS are used, text links to anti-IS YouTube videos will display. The keywords include “Fatwa for jihad in Syria” and places used for entry into IS-controlled Syria. When used, links with subtle messages like “Want to join ISIS?” will display. (Though maybe it should consider “one weird trick”.)

This information operation uses the same basic dilution method as the organically crowd-sourced ISIS-chan meme. By adding more anti-IS content to search results, the likelihood of legitimate IS propaganda displaying is reduced. The Google campaign goes a step further by curating a playlist of authentic anti-IS videos already uploaded to YouTube such as “Raqqa under ISIS food lines”. This is in contrast to government information operations like the State Department’s  failed “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign that created their own (bad) content, or France’s “How to Spot a Jihadist” infographic.

Unlike ISIS-chan, this information operation could have the potential to legitimately deter recruitment. Google claims that their anti-IS ad clickthrough rates are around nine per cent, much  higher than the two to three per cent in a typical Google AdWords campaign. Additionally, people seem to be actually watching the videos, with their best performing videos getting an average of eight minutes. That is a longer time than I spend on most videos I actually want to watch.

As we have seen, most IS recruits are ignorant of Islam. It makes sense that these would-be recruits are legitimately interested in what life in IS-controlled territory is like.

While this program is encouraging, it does make me question Google’s ultimate aim here. Are they altruistically investing time and money into counterterrorism, or will this information be used to change people’s minds about other things? It is a new development in the ongoing search neutrality debate. It would be difficult to oppose Google manipulating their results to combat terrorism, but it will be interesting to see how Google uses its new Inception-esque technology to change users minds in the future.

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?

 

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?

The GOP Wants to Defeat Islamic State, But Doesn’t Understand the Syrian Civil War

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Donald Trump never stops saying absurd things about the Middle East (Gage Skidmore photo)

An updated and expanded version of my post about the Republican plans for defeating Islamic State went up at Fair Observer, a global journal in partnership with the United Nations Foundation and Oxford University School of Politics and International Relations, on Wednesday.

“The three candidates’ plans for defeating Islamic State may differ tactically, but they all want to put American troops on the ground in Syria to fight IS while avoiding involvement in the Syrian Civil War. This is the type of half-planning that needlessly endangers Americans troops and exposes the US to blowback.

The power vacuum in Iraq and Syria that facilitated the rise of IS has been attributed by many Republicans to President Obama’s miscalculating the consequences of the Iraq withdrawal and inaction in Syria. But to advocate putting American troops in Syria to fight IS while keeping them neutral against Assad’s regime is not just bad strategy—it is wishful thinking.”

More here.

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.

A Post-Syria Middle East

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Update: The Department of Defense’s Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson answered a direct question about Rmeilan Airfield on Reddit, tacitly acknowledging that it is being used by special operations forces:

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A recent article about a purported American deal to use an airbase in Syria to support operations against Islamic State (IS) struck me as odd. It was not that the United States was further establishing a military presence in the war-torn Middle East — let’s face it, it is 2016 and this the norm — but rather who the agreement was made with: the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG, whom I have written about before (specifically their capacity to recruit American volunteer fighters), have controlled the territory in northeast Syria where Rmeilan airfield is located for over two years. If the claim that the Americans are using the airfield is true (a spokesman for United States Central Command has denied it, despite some evidence to the contrary), this represents a significant step in the end of the state we know to be Syria.

What is a state?

To discuss this concept, the state must be defined. The classical definition of the state in the field of international relations usually starts with sociologist Max Weber, who wrote in 1919 that the state is a “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

Additionally, the declarative theory of statehood adds that a state must have:

  1. Defined territory
  2. Permanent population
  3. Government
  4. Ability to enter into relations with other states, or thus be recognized by other states
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Sociologist Max Weber dropping some knowledge, 1917 (Wikipedia Commons photo)

When we combine these two definitions, it is apparent that Syria is struggling as a state — particularly when it comes to the monopoly on violence and defined territory.  But what makes the question of Syria as a state interesting is the other actors that have popped up inside what was once Syrian sovereign territory and how they have started to check the boxes for statehood. Prominently, groups like the YPG and IS are beginning to look like states.

Kurds and the Rojava state

The YPG controls most of northern Syria along the Turkish border. In the Weberian sense, the YPG looks like a state — they have successfully monopolized the legitimate use of violence within their territory. Though there has been active warfare over the last two years or so, in the opinion of the permanent population of Kurds that live there, it is for the most part the YPG who are the legitimate doorkeepers to the use of violence (not, for example, Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra).

Vehicles pass a Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) checkpoint in Tell Tamer town in Hasaka

Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) checkpoint in Syria, November 30, 2013. The sign reads “YPG in every place, YPG eyes do not sleep”. (REUTERS/Rodi Said photo)

However, a monopoly on violence and territory are not the only requirements. The YPG’s Kurdistan must also have a government. In fact, the YPG has established a government: an autonomous area called “Rojava” (West in Kurdish) with four established cantons and a democratic constitution.

The last and most crucial ingredient to statehood is the ability to enter relations with other states. Therefore, if the YPG has made an agreement with the US government to allow the use of an airfield, then Rojava has made an important step toward an eventual statehood.

Islamic Statehood in Iraq and al-Sham

But if the YPG are fulfilling some of the requirements to being recognized as a state, what about IS? After all, “state” is right in their name (by design!) Well, despite the name, there are many who would argue that Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state. As the former would require another post (or book) entirely, I will only be focusing on the “state” aspect.

“Islamic State reacts as stately as the US when it comes to armed dissent — though IS justice can be a little more Waco, a little less Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.”

IS has been effective in brutally enforcing the monopolization of violence. On the one hand IS must continue to fight and win to attract foreign fighters, thus as long as they continue to win, they can claim legitimacy in the simplest “might makes right” terms. But while immigrants to Islamic State-held territory are pre-convinced of IS sovereignty, surely not all of their permanent population recognizes IS’s legitimate violence monopoly.

In this case, I do not think that some contention from their population delegitimizes the claim of statehood. After all, in the United States, an armed militia recently occupied federal lands. In response the FBI shot and killed one of the militiamen and arrested the others. By winning and eliminating the troublemakers, the US retains its legitimate monopoly of violence. IS reacts as stately as the US when it comes to armed dissent — though IS justice can be a little more Waco, a little less Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

The ability of IS to actually govern has been widely covered. Much like Hizbullah or Hamas, IS does provide services to its population via bureaucratic institutions. But what about the most important element to statehood? Officially, IS is not recognized by any other state. IS can call itself a state all it wants, but until another state acknowledges them as one, they are not in the club. This is not for lack of trying, however. In a recent video, IS recognized Taiwan — perhaps hoping to get a return scratch on the back.

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Islamic State literally destroying the border between Iraq and Syria in a figurative gesture (IS social media photo)

Curiously, a major source of IS revenue is oil sales. Yet if no state has recognized IS, then who is buying their oil? (Assad, actually, among others.) This implies that IS does actually have some sort of de facto recognition from the international community and demonstrates that they do have some ability to enter in relations with other states. For the time being, it appears they can only do so discreetly.

The end of the Syrian state

While the YPG’s Rojava and Islamic State cannot be considered full-fledged states yet, they are certainly on their way. The current state of their existence has delegitimized Syria to a point that the Syria we knew before 2011 has ceased to exist — probably forever. We have seen that various actors in Syria have started to fit the classical definition of the state: monopolizing violence, controlling territory, having a population, and governing. As the global community begins or continues to enter into relations with these actors, new states may form and we will have finally stepped fully into a post-Syria Middle East.


Update: I did eventually write another post on how Islamic IS is. You can read it here.

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.