Tag: Syria (page 1 of 4)

#RussiansDidit

Putin’s annual press conference is a chance for regular citizens to spend 3 hours in a great and rich Russia, where everything is in order and Putin is capable of installing presidents in foreign countries (according to one journalist). In general, the press conference strived to paint a picture of a great power facing some economic problems and who is constantly challenged by other countries (they are probably jealous and/or Russophobic). For me it was also a chance to wonder at Putin’s stamina. He might not be Superman, as one of the posters brought by the journalists stipulated, but his bladder is definitely made of steel.

As always, Putin demonstrated his ability to juggle all kinds of statistics in response to questions about economics, including Russia’s successful export of IT. One may wonder if he included hacking, because that was definitely a very successful export. As a female journalist called for abolishing juvenile justice in Russia, because ‘slapping children is a traditional Russian [sic] pedagogical method’, Putin emphasized that there was a slim line between slapping and beating up, but still warned against interfering into family matters. In comparison to the rhetoric of some of the questions, Putin did make an impression of a more liberal and reasonable politician, very much fitting into the narrative of ‘without Putin it could be much worse’ .

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Applying the Emerging Trump Doctrine to Syria

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By and large, world leaders have gone from being taken aback about Donald Trump’s unexpected victory to being outright alarmed. Exceptions to this rule are Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, both of whom expect Trump to be far better to deal with than Secretary Clinton. Yet, while it still is not remotely clear what a Trump Doctrine will strategically comprise, his coming moves in Syria do not bode well.

Russia and the Syrian regime look to be the chief beneficiaries of the coming shifts in U.S. policy toward the 5-year old conflict that has weaponized half the country as refugees, killed half a million people, and continues to mete out suffering en masse in Aleppo and elsewhere.

Trump has said—erroneously—that Aleppo has already fallen, and he has described the opposition forces “as worse than Assad.” Trump will immediately remove support for the moderate opposition forces fighting Syrian/Russian/Iranian/Hezbollah forces, both overt and covert. To boot, the UN’s efforts to broker peace will be thoroughly undermined. At one point early on in the campaign Trump spoke favorably of a safe/no fly zone, but that is not on the cards at this point. He will avoid acting contrary to Russian interests.

The upshot of the coming Trump Administration’s moves in this space will be to strengthen the Russian hand, and give it a free one in and around Syria. As such, Putin is unlikely to test Trump in the manner some have speculated. Effectively he has no need to see how far down the road of harming U.S. national security interests he can go, when his partner in this potentially dangerous diplomatic dalliance is doing the work for him. Continue reading

Syria: An Option Remains

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With the bombing of the UN aid convoy in Syria and fresh attacks on Aleppo after the Assad regime declared the ceasefire over, American and UN officials are in need of a Plan B. Now that trust between the U.S. and Russia is at a new low after Russia allegedly carried out the convoy attack, the situation on the ground Thas gotten even more grim. With the U.S.-Russian ceasefire accord in tatters, the time has come to put a Safe Zone in place for refugees.

In fact, a de facto safe zone is already in place in northern Syria. The Turkish military’s recent thrust over the shared border has begun to allow Syrian refugees to cross back over into Jarabulus. For weeks Turkey has been advocating that the U.S. and western allies work with it to install a formal Safe Zone. With no other realistic options remaining, this novel development has the potential to be a game changer.

The only viable option is to install a Safe Zone in northern Syria stretching north from Aleppo to the Turkish border and east to just west of Kobani.  The viability of the zone rests on Turkey’s ability to lead the effort and militarily guard the zone on the ground, and the fact that the Syrian regime does not at present fly in this area. The security and humanitarian reasons are compelling, from turning around refugee flight to establishing a sizable zone of stability and allowing the focus to be on eradicating ISIS with Turkey fully engaged. Continue reading

A New Plan B for Syria

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Syria’s civil-proxy war is on the cusp of turning into an all-out regional war, with negative repercussions for all involved in the conflict. The humanitarian disaster is at its most acute to date, with Russian forces systematically attacking the Syrian opposition and on the verge of a rout of Aleppo—and now Turkish ground forces engaging Kurdish forces across its border. With the U.S.-Russian ceasefire accord appearing unlikely to alter much on the ground, the time has come for the U.S., Europe, and the Saudi-led Gulf countries to make a decisive move to take the initiative back from Russia, contain Turkey, and stabilize the conflict.

Anti-ISIS efforts in northeastern Syria and Iraq aside, the pressure point at present is in northwestern Syria. Conventional wisdom suggests that there are no good options for the allies: 1) Attempting to implement the loophole-ridden ceasefire accord, 2) allowing Russia to continue bombing “terrorist groups” i.e. the opposition forces, or 3) taking more direct military action directly against the Syrian military, for which there is zero appetite in the U.S. and Europe. Nonetheless, putting a safe/no fly zone option back on the table would not only meet the joint interests of Western and Gulf allies, but also prove viable on the ground. Not only has Turkey called for this, but so have Germany and France–not to mention Hillary Clinton.

While Turkey will be critical for getting to an eventual endgame in Syria, at this crucial juncture this key western ally needs to be contained itself. Turkey has been shelling Kurdish YPG militia forces for the last week, and now that one of its operatives is being blamed for the successful attack in Ankara, Turkey is on the verge of a highly destabilizing escalation. Turkey legitimately needs the U.S. to press the YPG to back off, and Turkey itself has called for the establishment of a Safe Zone. The U.S. and its western allies need to act fast, also to ensure that the YPG does not “defect” and transfer its allegiance to Russia—which would be another coup for Russia.

Having ceded the initiative to Russia, not seizing it back would be an additional strategic error. Already the Russian action proves that conventional deterrence against it remains lost, even after announcement of a major U.S. effort to shore up western capabilities in Central Eastern Europe. Even before it could be enacted, it is falling short of one of its major objectives: the intended deterrent effect is stillborn. Russia has already wiped out the efforts of allied intelligence agencies on the ground in Syria. And at the Munich Security Conference it just took the mask off in claiming it is in “a new Cold War” with the West. To begin restoring deterrence, western allies need to act. It was a mistake to publicly declare that military options in Syria were off the table, indicating the diplomacy track is now the basket holding all the Administration’s eggs. The allies need to pursue a different option in order to regain their lost leverage. Continue reading

ISIS and the Future of Counter-Terrorism

[I’ve been debating whether to post this…it’s a “transcript” of a talk I gave yesterday here at the University of Puget Sound. It’s a bit basic as it was intended for a general audience of, primarily, undergraduate students. I wrote this up for friends who wanted to hear the talk but were unable to attend. It’s a bit disorganized too. So be warned it’s kind of ramble-y and general. Also, I haven’t provided source information or links. If you want any, please ask!]

It’s been a few days since the Paris bombings, and we have some more information about what happened, which has prompted me to reflect on what the attacks—along with those in Ankara, Beirut, and the Sinai—tell us about what ISIS is doing and why, and what these attacks mean for counter-terrorism efforts.

First, it’s important to note that these attacks are occurring in the context of an increase in mass casualty attacks (defined as terrorist attacks causing more than 100 deaths). Between 1978 and 2013, there was an average of 4.6 mass casualty attacks per year. In 2014, there were 26 while to date in 2015 there have been 15. While this is indeed a small n in terms of both number of events and time, it’s interesting to note that there might be a trend among terrorists towards soft target mass casualty attacks.

While we still don’t know for sure the degree to which the ISIS leadership in Syria was involved in any of these attacks, it’s looking increasingly likely that they played a role in at least three of the attacks (the Sinai bombing is the most likely to have been done by some other organization, with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula being the leading candidate). But, if we assume that ISIS is responsible for these attacks, it would represent a shift in their tactics and overturn many of the analytic assumptions about the group’s strategy.

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The Duck Civil War over Russia…

…has escalated. First, Jeff took his argument to Foreign Affairs.  Now I’ve retaliated—and brought in Alex Cooley in an attempt at establishing escalation dominance.

These interpretations dangerously misread contemporary geopolitics, however. Putin’s appearance of strength is, in reality, a function of Russia’s relatively weak international position. Russia lacks a global network of allies and partners and denounces the United States’ leadership. But Moscow cannot decisively influence the rules, institutions, and norms of the international order. By contrast, what many diagnose as U.S. weakness is a symptom of its exorbitant geostrategic privilege. Prudent foreign policy requires Washington to manage its extensive and heterogeneous security commitments and global relationships carefully. This makes Putin’s style of boldness not only less difficult to pursue but also often reckless—sacrificing longer-term position for short-term gain.

Go check it out (paywalled).

Is Russia a Paper Tiger?

Jeff Stacey has a new piece at Foreign Affairs that is basically a re-skinned version of his post at the Duck of Minerva. It should come as little surprise that I don’t find either piece particularly persuasive.

Overall, I agree with Jeff’s basic assessment of Russian moves as destabilizing. In Syria, where Moscow seeks to save the Assad regime, Russian intervention in a country that the US and its allies are already mounting military operations carries with it significant risks. Also, as Jeff writes:

Indeed, Russia has been playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with allied planes and ships across Eurasia for many months now. Among other things, it has been both flying in the flight paths of Western commercial and military aircraft and using ships and submarines to intermittently sail into Western countries’ territorial waters. In addition, Russia has staged a series of large-scale military exercises just across the border of Poland and several Baltic states, and its intelligence service actually seized an Estonian agent during last year’s NATO Summit and held him for several days.

I see this ‘muscle flexing’ as a mixture of ham-handed coercive diplomacy and reversion to Cold War great-power repertoires. It would obviously be better for everyone if Moscow stopped, insofar as they increase the risk of military and diplomatic incidents. But, as I noted a few days ago, these efforts have generally backfiredContinue reading

Russia, Russia Burning Bright? (Spoiler: Not So Much)

Russia Comp GDP

GDP (PPP) for US, Russian Federation, and Major European Economies

The Russian Federation covers more territory than any other country. It has a large nuclear arsenal, skilled weapons designers, and the world’s fourth largest military budget—after the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia. But it maintains that budget—which comes it at roughly 12% of US military expenditures—by spending a larger percentage of its GDP on defense than does the United States, China, Britain, France, Japan, or Germany. Indeed, if the major European economies boosted defense spending to 3% of GDP—still short of Russia—they would each have larger military budgets.

Of course, military spending is a poor proxy for capabilities. Russia has a larger population than any other European state, along with a big army, extensive air-defense network, and other indicators of martial prowess. But it also has a smaller economy than the state of California, and still cannot indigenously produce much of the high-tech accruement of modern warfare. Moscow can certainly overwhelm many of its neighbors, but it isn’t a political-military juggernaut.

I consider such remarks necessary in light of the current freakout over Moscow’s intervention in Syria, including here at the Duck of Minerva.

Thankfully, a wave of cooler heads have started to push back against the hyperventilations of #resolvefairy acolytes. But the whole notion that Putin is a master strategist, and that whatever goes down in Syria is a result of his outmaneuvering the West in Ukraine, needs a reality check.

Let’s review. Continue reading

Putin Falls Into Obama’s Syria Trap. (Or Is It The Other Way Around?)

Russia has begun conducting air strikes in Syria, much to consternation of many. But there seems to be some in the Obama Administration who can barely contain their glee at the thought of Putin and Russia getting bogged down in the Syria quagmire:

“If he wants to jump into that mess, good luck,” one official said, noting that Russia had become bogged down in Afghanistan a generation ago in a fight against Islamic radicals.

Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told reporters that the Russians may be “making a terrible strategic mistake” by deepening their military involvement in Syria. He also warned of the “risk of running into a quagmire.”

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Russia, Syria, and the Costs of Inaction in Ukraine

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The ominous Russian military buildup in Syria represents the most significant projection of force beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union since the old Cold War. It will allow Russia to keep the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria, effectively negating the new diplomatic path toward resolution of the regional sectarian war that has been opened up by the Iran nuclear deal.

In addition it will further enable Russia to build and retain a major forward operating base for Russian military forces. At first it will be used to keep Assad in power. Then, as a cover, Russia likely will initiate sustained use of force ostensibly against ISIS, but actually to act as if Russia is in vanguard with the West and Middle Eastern powers in combating the world’s most dangerous insurgent group.

Beyond this, there is little guarantee that Russia won’t use its most high end military weaponry in other destabilizing ways that are contrary to western interests, such as attacking U.S.-backed opposition fighters (alarmingly, Russian drone flights have been scouting those areas, not ISIS areas). Offensive hardware including fixed wing Su-24, 25, and 27 fighter jets, attack helicopters, drone aircraft, main battle tanks, and SA-22 surface-to-air missile batteries have already been deployed at Russia’s new base in Latakia Syria in the backyard of Assad’s stronghold. Continue reading

On doing ‘something’ … as academics

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Yesterday the picture of little Alan (previously identified as Aylan), lying dead in the sand on the shores of the Mediterranean, circled the world. It provoked strong reactions from those who ‘witnessed’ his death in this manner and, not unlike the debates following some of the images shared after 9/11 (I wrote about that then), people questioned the ethics of sharing the images particularly without warning (see replies by some who shared here, here & here and note that his father wants the image to be shared if it can provoke action).

Indeed, it was  this tweet Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 11.35.40 AMfrom fellow Duck Megan MacKenzie that prompted today’s post (you can read our full exchange here). Her concerns are echoed, and expanded, in this piece (which also links to issues I discuss in a previous post on the #BBOG campaign). Of course there are things that we can do, even from the comfort of our own homes: We can sign petitions, such as this one from Avaaz or this one to force a debate in the UK parliament. We can share lists of things to do such as this one – and maybe get involved locally in Greece, Germany, or Italy (no matter where you are you can get involved locally – there are needs in San Francisco, where I am, and Sydney, where Megan is. If you have information for your local area, feel free to share them in the comments).

But …

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The Politics of Resettlement: Migrants vs. Refugees

We are witnessing the horror of war. We see it every day, with fresh pictures of refugees risking their lives on the sea, rather than risking death by shrapnel, bombs, assassination or enslavement. For the past four years, over 11 million Syrians have left their homes; 4 million of them have left Syria altogether. Each day thousands attempt to get to a safer place, a better life for themselves and their children. Each day, the politics of resettlement and the fear of terrorism play their part.

The last major resettlement campaign in the US came after the Vietnam War. Over a 20-year period 2 million people from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were resettled into the US.   The overall number of resettled refugees from this period is roughly about 3 million. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Turkey alone has taken 2 million Syrian refugees within its borders. In short, Turkey has absorbed the same amount of war refugees in a four-year period that the US absorbed in five times the amount of time.

Turning to the Syrian case, which has produced the most refugees in any war in the past 70 years, we find a very dismal record of other than near neighbor resettlement. The Syrian conflict began in early 2011, and while the violence quickly escalated, I am taking the numbers of admitted Syrian refugees to the US starting in 2012. In 2012, the US admitted 35 Syrian refugees. In 2013, it admitted 48; in 2014, it admitted 1307. For 2015, the US is estimating admitting somewhere between 1000-2000 refugees. Even Canada, who tends to be more open with regard to resettlement and aid, has only admitted about 1300 refugees, pledging to admit 10,000 more by 2017.  In short, since the beginning of this war, one of the most powerful countries in the world, with ample space and the economic capacity to admit more people, has admitted an estimated total of 2400 people, and its neighbor, a defender of human rights, has admitted about half that. Thinking the other way around, the US has agreed to take in .0006 % of the current population of Syrian refugees, and this number does not does not take into consideration the 7 million internally displaced people of Syria, or the simple fact that one country (Turkey) has absorbed 45%.

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U.S. Options Limited Due to Will and Not Lack of Drones

Today, Kate Brannen’s piece in Foreign Policy sent mixed messages with regard to the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS).  She reports that the US is balancing demands “For intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets across Iraq and Syria with keeping an eye on Afghanistan”. The implication, which the title of her piece implies, is that if the US just had more “drones” over Syria, it would be able to fight IS more adeptly.   The problem, however, is that her argument is not only misleading, it is also dismissive of the Arab allies’ human intelligence contributions.

While Brannen is right to note that the US has many of its unmanned assets in Afghanistan and that this will certainly change with the upcoming troop draw down there, it is not at all clear why moving those assets to Syria will yield any better advantage against IS. Remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) are only useful in permissive air environments, or an environment where one’s air assets will not face any obstructions or attacks. The US’s recent experience with its drone operations abroad have been mostly all permissive environments, and as such, it is able to fly ISR missions – and combat ones as well – without interference from an adversary.   The fight against IS, however, is not a permissive environment. It may range from non-permissive to hostile, depending upon the area and the capabilities of IS at the time.   We know that IS has air defense capabilities, and so these may interfere with operations.   What is more, we also know that RPAs are highly vulnerable to air defense systems and are inappropriate for hostile and contested air spaces. NATO recently published a report outlining the details of this fact.   Thus before we claim that more “drones” will help the fight against IS, we ought to look very carefully at the operational appropriateness of them.

A secondary, but equally important, the point in Brannen’s argument concerns the exportation of unmanned technology. She writes,

“According to the senior Defense Department official, members of the coalition against the Islamic State are making small contributions in terms of ISR capabilities, but it’s going to take time to get them more fully integrated. U.S. export policy is partly to blame for the limits on coalition members when it comes to airborne surveillance, Scharre said. ‘The U.S. has been very reluctant to export its unmanned aircraft, even with close allies.’ ‘There are countries we will export the Joint Strike Fighter to, but that we will not sell an armed Reaper to,’ [Scharre] said.”

The shift from discussing ISR capabilities to exportation of armed unmanned systems may go unnoticed by many, but it is a very important point. We might bemoan the fact that the US’s Arab partners are making “small [ISR] contributions” to the fight against IS, but providing them with unarmed, let alone armed, unmanned platforms may not fix the situation. As I noted above, they may be shot down if flown in inappropriate circumstances.   Moreover, if the US wants to remain dominant in the unmanned systems arena, then it will want to be very selective about exporting it. Drone proliferation is already occurring, with the majority of the world’s countries in possession of some type of unmanned system. While those states may not possess medium or high altitude armed systems, there is worry that it is only a matter of time until they do. For example, arming the Kurds with Global Hawks or Reapers will not fix this situation, and may only upset an already delicate balance between the allies.

Proliferation and technological superiority remain a constant concern for the US. Which is why, taken in conjunction with the known limitations of existing unmanned platforms, there has not been a rush to either export or move the remaining drone fleet in Afghanistan to Syria and Iraq. IS is a different enemy than the Taliban in Afghanistan or the “terrorists” in Yemen, Pakistan or Somalia.  IS possess US military hardware, they are battle hardened, have a will to fight and die, and are capable of tactical and operational strategizing. Engagement with them will require forces up close and on the ground, and supporting that kind of fighting from the air is better done with close air support. Thus it is telling that the US is sending in Apache helicopters to aid the fight but not moving more drones.

ISR is of course a necessity. No one denies this. However, to claim that this can only be achieved from 60,000 feet is misleading. ISR comes from a range of sources, from human ones to satellite images.  Implying that our Arab allies are merely contributing a “small amount” to ISR dismisses their well-placed intelligence capabilities. Jordan, for example, can provide better on the ground assessment than the US can, as the US lacks the will to put “boots on the ground” to gather those sources.  Such claims also send a message to these states that their efforts and lives are not enough. When in fact, the US is relying just as heavily on those boots as they are relying on our ISR.

 

Tweets of the Week #3

Twitter HQ: Logo artwork

It’s the weekend, so it’s time for the third edition of “Tweets of the Week.” My twitter feed was again filled with some interesting micro-blogging.

By the way, I apologize for the way last week’s home page post looked. Obviously, I’m doing something wrong with the images, though it seems to be fine once the reader clicks the link to Continue Reading. I hope readers can see the image at the top of this page. Continue reading

ISIS, Syria, the Rebels and the US-Led Coalition: What Governs Who?

In a phone call today with a friend working on issues pertaining to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), an interesting question arose. In particular, what types of conflict are going on with the fight against ISIS? My friend wanted to draw attention to the R2P aspects of the crisis, and whether the “intervention” on the side of the US was just according to these standards. While this is certainly an interesting question, I think it points us in the direction of a larger set of questions regarding the nature of the conflict itself. That is, what are the existing laws with which we ought to view the unfolding situation inside Syria? The complexity of the situation, while definitely a headache for strategists and politicians, is going to become equally difficult for international lawyers too. In particular the case has at least two different bodies of law at work, as well as laws pertaining to R2P crimes. Thus any action within Syria against ISIS, or Al-Qaeda, or Assad, or the rebels will have to be dealt with relationally.

Let us look to the case. Syria has been experiencing civil war for three years. Assad’s violations the rights of his people mean that he has manifestly failed to uphold the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine. R2P requires that states hold the primary responsibility to protect their peoples from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Given Assad’s use of chemical weapons and cluster munitions, as well as targeting civilian populations, he has clearly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. That Assad has employed the Shabiha, a private paramilitary force, to engage in killing means that he has also more than likely engaged in ethnic cleansing as well. In a perfect world, the Security Council would have acted in a “timely and decisive manner” to stop such abuses, and would have referred the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution. Of course, in May of this year, 53 countries urged the Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC. A mere two days later, Russia and China blocked the referral to the ICC by utilizing their permanent veto powers.   Three years of bloodshed, civil breakdown, hundreds of thousands dead, and three million of refugees, it is too clear that there was no desire to intervene in the crisis.   Thus we can say that there is an ongoing R2P crisis, and that Assad—as leader of the government of Syria—ought to be held to account for these acts. Moreover, there is a failure of the international community to live up to its obligations (as it voluntarily incurred under the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document).

The sheer destruction and violence inside Syria is what permitted the rise of ISIS. This seems an indisputable fact.   The group capitalized on the civil war and breakdown, the tensions between and factionalization of the Syrian rebel groups, and the international community’s reluctance to engage Assad.   Thus until ISIS pushed into Iraq, the international community would probably have let it be. Moreover, international law would have deemed the issue one of a non-international armed conflict.   However, once ISIS set its sights on the Mosul Dam, the international community began to wake up.

With this act, ISIS transformed the non-international armed conflict into a two-dimensional one. In other words, it added an international dimension too. Thus as the fighting between the rebels and the Assad regime continued (and continues) to be a non-international armed conflict, but the fighting of ISIS in Iraq meant that ISIS-Iraq-Kurd conflict is international. If one doubts this reading, then it would have at least become a transnational armed conflict at the very least, but because ISIS targeted Iraqi infrastructure, it seems more likely that this single act transformed the conflict into an international one.

Now that the US and other regional powers have entered the fray, it is most definitely an international armed conflict – between ISIS and these states. However, we must still remember that the civil war between Assad and the various rebel fighters is also still ongoing (as well, presumably between ISIS vs. Assad). Thus there is still a non-international armed conflict here too. And, let us not forget, R2P and Assad!

What does this all mean? Well, in short it means that the only way to tell which set of laws applies is to look at the relation of the parties at any given moment. The casuistry here will become the all-important determining factor. For example, if the US trains and arms “moderate” Syrian rebels, one would have to look at the particular operation to determine which set of laws applies. Is the operation one undertaken in support or in concert with the US-led coalition against ISIS? Yes? Then international humanitarian law applies. Is the operation undertaken by these trained and armed rebels one against the Assad regime? Yes? Well, then this may or may not be a non-international armed conflict. The International Court of Justice, for instance, holds that in the case of third party intervention in support of a rebel group, the third party needs to have “overall control” of the rebel group for that conflict to be considered “internationalized.” Given the different rebel groups, this could become a daunting analysis. Is control of one sufficient to say it is for “all?” Or just this one group?

These little details matter because the law of international armed conflict is much more robust than the law pertaining to non-international armed conflict. As the International Committee of the Red Cross notes:

“Although the existence of so many provisions and treaties may appear to be sufficient, the treaty rules applicable in non-international armed conflicts are, in fact, rudimentary compared to those applicable in international armed conflicts. Not only are there fewer of these treaty rules, but they are also less detailed and, in the case of Additional Protocol II, their application is dependent on the specific situations described above.”

In other words, there are gaps in the protection of rights, persons, property and the environment relating to non-international armed conflict that do not exist in international humanitarian law (i.e. international armed conflict).   Thus the case of ISIS challenges the international community in more ways than one. It is not that there are not laws applying to these conflicts, but that the conflicts are so convoluted that the states and parties to this conflict, as well as potential international prosecutors, will rely on so much more circumstantial evidence to sort out the details about what is permissible and when. This, however, is not something likely to happen ex ante in targeting operations, training and arming. I fear that while there are overlapping jurisdictions of rules and laws here, the convoluted nature will engender an even greater realm of permissiveness and the parties to the conflicts will end up transferring more risk and harm to the bystanders. Civilians always suffer, to be sure, but the laws of war are supposed to mitigate that suffering. If the laws of war are convoluted because of the complexity of the actors and their relationships, then this will have greater deleterious effects on the lives and rights of noncombatants.

Obama's "Lack" of Strategy Towards ISIS

The last two days have seen a maelstrom of media attention to President Obama’s admission that he currently does not have a strategy for attacking or containing ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in Syria.   It is no surprise that those on the right criticized Obama’s candid remarks, and it is equally not surprising that the left is attempting some sort of damage control, noting that perhaps the “no strategy” comment is really Obama holding his cards close to his chest.   What seems to be missing from any of the discussion is what exactly he meant by “strategy,” and moreover, the difficult question of the end he would be seeking.

Let’s take the easy part first. Strategy, at least for the military, has a very particular meaning. It is about ends, ways and means of a military character. Indeed, strategy, as distinct from operational planning and tactics, is about the overall end state of a war (or “limited” war).   The strategic goal, therefore, is about the desired state of affairs post bellum. It requires that one ask: What is it that I want to achieve? How would I get there through the use of force? “Strategy” is not tantamount to “planning,” and for the strategist, ought to be reserved for strictly military activities.

Once one identifies the desired end, one must then take this goal and break it down into more manageable pieces through another two levels: operations and tactics. The operational level concerns the middle term: it something beyond a particular tactic (say aerial bombardment of an enemy’s rear line), to something broader, say a collection of missions. All the operations ought to be directed toward some particular portion of the overall strategy.   At each level a commander is issued a set of commands, and each commander then takes her orders and operationalizes them into how she thinks to best achieve those orders (commander’s intent). She does so by consulting with a variety of reporting officers (weaponeers, logistics, lawyers, etc.) This is a hierarchical and a horizontal process, and it always feeds back upon itself to ensure those goals are in fact being achieved.   Or, at least, this is how the process ought to go.

It is, therefore, laudable that President Obama admitted that he does not yet have a strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria. Why? Because, the desired “end goal,” of which any strategy necessarily requires, is not yet clear. Does the US want to “defeat” ISIS? Surely that is part of the equation, as Secretary of State Kerry called it a “cancer.”   Yet there is more to this tale than merely quashing a group of radicalized, well-organized and heavily armed nonstate actors.  The US military power could do this relatively quickly, if it desired to do so.   But this would not “defeat” ISIS in the way of seeking a better peace or achieving one’s end goal. For taking it out does not entail that justice and harmony will prevail.

This brings us to the second and more difficult question: What is the desired end goal? While I am not privy to the Commander-in-Chief’s thought processes, nor am I present with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in their briefings to the President, but as a student of strategy and an observer and academic, it appears to me that the President has not adequately formulated what this end goal ought to be yet. If one truly desires that ISIS is “defeated” this will take more than air strikes, it will take more than (whoever’s) boots on the ground.   It will take establishing the rule of law, providing for basic needs, such as food, security and water, as well as jobs, education, and infrastructure. For ISIS is not a traditional “enemy,” it is a monster made from the blood, havoc, insecurity and fear that have ruled Syria for three years. This new crisis over ISIS does not come from nowhere: over three million Syrians are refugees; over six million are internally displaced; and almost two hundred thousand have died. Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against humanity and war crimes provided the incubator for ISIS. Moreover, the world’s—not just the US’s—failure to do anything to protect the Syrian people and respond to Mr. Assad’s crimes generated an expanse for ISIS to grow and consolidate. That the international community manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect the Syrian people is obvious, and it is equally obvious that one cannot ignore a crisis and think it will just go away.

Recall that at the very beginnings of the Syrian crisis, up until the (in)famous “red line” of chemical weapons, the US could not garner support from its allies or from its own people. The geopolitical situation then, while heavily dictated by Iran and Russia, is not much different. To be sure, Russia is clearly on its own dangerous course in Ukraine, and Iran has ISIS in its backyard, but there is no upwelling of international support to this cause.

Secretary of State Kerry’s op-ed in the New York Times calls for a “global coalition” to fight ISIS. Whether he realizes that this threat is not just about ISIS, that ISIS is merely a Golgothan of the Syrian civil war, is yet to be seen. To actually “defeat” ISIS is to remove the need for ISIS. ISIS has merely filled a Hobbesian vacuum where:

“The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place [in a state of nature]. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law; where no Law, no Injustice. Force and Fraud, are in warre, the two Cardinal Vertues. Justice, and Injustice are none of the Faculties neither of the Body, nor Mind. […] They are Qualities, that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude” (Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter 13, para. 63.)

Yet if we view the fight against ISIS beyond the mere military victory, it is a fight against ideology, insecurity, and fear. Indeed it does require a global coalition, but one directed towards the establishment of peace and security in the Middle East – and beyond – and the protection of human rights and the rule of law. In this, it requires states to look beyond their immediate self-interests. Therefore, I am actually happy to see the President give pause. For maybe, just maybe, he too sees that the problem is larger than dropping tons of ordinance on an already destroyed nation. Maybe, just maybe, he sees that ISIS can only be defeated through broader cosmopolitan principles of justice.   If this is too tall an order, then he must tread very carefully while formulating his restricted and “limited” strategy.

Wednesday Linkage

Editor’s note: this post originally appeared on my personal blog. It contains some links to posts that appeared here at the Duck.

1. An interview with Jim Fearon about Ukraine. Lots of good stuff here, both about Ukraine and in general. As you’d expect.

2b. Some thoughts from Branislav Slantchev about Russia’s Cold War Syndrome. c. Anna Pechenkina reacts. d. Slantchev responds.

3. Still want to read more about Ukraine? Okay, check out Taylor Marvin on why it doesn’t make much sense to use force in Syria in order to signal resolve. I agree. Using force in one crisis to influence perceptions about your willingness to do so elsewhere may make sense under certain conditions, but the crises would have to be pretty similar. Unlike some, I’m not convinced that failing to poke out the eyeballs of someone who flipped you off will lead the world to think that you wouldn’t lift a finger to stop someone from beating your children to death with a baseball bat.

4. Also, check out this nice post by Anita Kellog on what the crisis does (or does not) tell us about the impact of economic interdependence. Key quote: “In 2012 total trade with Russia (imports and exports) accounted for 26% of Ukraine’s economic activities, whereas this trade accounted for only 2% of Russia’s GDP.”

5. Assad announces bid for reelection. He’s, um, expected to win.

6. A call for partition of Central African Republic. Key quote: “‘The partition itself has already been done. Now there only remains the declaration of independence,’ said Abdel Nasser Mahamat Youssouf, member of a youth group lobbying for the secession of the north, as he pointed to the flag of what he said would be a secular republic.”

7. This isn’t everything you need to know about Israel and Palestine, the title notwithstanding, but it’s still a nice resource. Fairly comprehensive, but still concise. Worth assigning to students.

8. The Marshall Islands is suing the world’s nuclear powers (h/t Holly Gerrity). Key quote: “While the suit seems unlikely to end in any country being compelled to disarm, it will at the very least highlight the fact that while existing nuclear powers frequently invoke international law to argue for why countries like Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, they tend to gloss over the other part of the deal—that they will work to fully eliminate their own arsenals.”

9. A trade spat between the US and Mexico over sugar (h/t Rebecca Johnson). Key quote: “John W. Bode, the president of the Corn Refiners Association, ‘The political influence of the US sugar industry is legendary…. They may be only 4 percent of US agriculture but when you look at political contributions, they account for a third.'”

10. Writing a great abstract (h/t Brent Sasley). A lot of good advice. Key quote: “The ideal abstract…has three parts. 1. statement of the area of concern or disputation 2. statement of the thesis or argument 3. implications for further research.”

11. Interview with GRRM. The whole thing is worth reading, but I found this quote to be of particular interest: “The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that. World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II – the kind of war you look back afterward and say, ‘What the hell were we fighting for? Why did all these millions of people have to die? Was it really worth it to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that we wiped out an entire generation, and tore up half the continent? Was the War of 1812 worth fighting? The Spanish-American War? What the hell were these people fighting for?'”

11. John Oliver on India’s election.

Public Opinion in the Midst of the Syrian Civil War

I have been an admirer of Sam Whitt’s work for some time.  He has always done interesting research, being one of the first to study and publish on Katrina and run surveys/experiments on divided post conflict societies.   Whitt and his colleague Vera Mironova, conducted a survey of civilians and rebels in Syria during the Civil War.  assad duck

This fascinating study points out many problems and issues the international community will face as it tries to push for a peaceful solution to the Syrian Civil War.  Moving beyond the civil-military gap and also the more modern socio-military gap, Mironova and Whitt identify what might be called the civilian-rebel gap.  In Syria, most rebels are focused on revenge and removing Assad from power while the civilians are tired of the fighting, starving, and want the conflict to end now.  These growing divisions are important to understand as the international community pushes for a solution to the violence.  Often scholars fail to investigate the within group preferences of a domestic population and avoid examining active war zones, Moronova and Whitt attempt to do both.

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Avoiding the Joint Security Trap (and Countering Conventional Wisdom)

Obama-Cameron

The diplomatic dustup over Syria brought Russia in from the cold but simultaneously froze any notion that western allies were getting their strategic act together. Nonetheless, although the mistakes in the U.S. and UK’s approach to building support at home and abroad for an intervention in Syria confused leaders and citizens alike, these mistakes should not be interpreted as an abrupt turn-around in their and their allies’ strategic thinking.

In fact the Europeans, even under a prolonged condition of austerity, are making progress filling in the capability gaps made clear in the course of the Libyan operation. Recent history has demonstrated that arguing the U.S. should keep its security blanket in place despite the end of the Cold War—out of fear that Europeans would not increase their own defense capabilities in kind—was mistaken. Still, austerity has prevented sufficient progress to avoid the joint security trap.

Were the Arab Awakening to go awry and were an al-Qaeda affiliate to begin setting up training camps and operating somewhere such as Yemen, the U.S. or possibly NATO would no doubt heed the call once more to deal with the threat.  But any future crisis in Europe’s direct neighborhood, somewhere like Tunisia, will require Europe to take the lead as the U.S. is likely to take a pass.  It is therefore in the joint interests of the U.S. and Europe not to reduce their mutual security at this critical juncture.

However Europe has yet to develop its own integrated, deployable, expeditionary military capability; instead a number of European allies à la the U.S. have been slashing their defense budgets under austerity.  But akin to the classic prisoner’s dilemma, if the U.S. and European allies do not coordinate their cuts and agree to begin “combining” what is left, both will become worse off and experience a mutual loss of security in lieu of cooperating.  In fact, at this juncture western allies are actually on the verge of becoming ensnared in the joint security trap. Continue reading

Words of Mass Destruction in the Syria Debate

Note: This is a guest post by Ty Solomon, Lecturer at the University of Glasgow

Even though the war in Syria has been raging for the past two years, much of the global outrage that we now see has only erupted with the recent reports about Bashar al Assad’s government attacking civilians with chemical weapons.   Arguably, the past two long years of war has not provoked the same level of indignation as we are now seeing from world leaders and publics.  Why is it only now, with the use of chemical weapons – and not the use of “conventional” bombs and guns – have the US and UK governments seriously debated intervening?  The conflict has not necessarily taken a turn for the worse with the recent poison gas revelations.  By some accounts 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict before the chemical weapons attack, which itself is reported to have killed about 1,400 people  While indeed horrific, chemical weapons are not necessarily more deadly than “regular” bombs and guns.

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