New SpecOps Forces in Syria: A New Entree or Stirring the Ravioli?

The Obama administration’s announcement today that the United States would send less than 50 Special Operations forces to Kurdish territory in Syria stands as one of his most high-profile decisions on the subject of Syria’s now four and a half year old civil war.

For a president who has fought for so long to keep the United States out of another entanglement in the Middle East, the policies enumerated today came as a surprise to many. After all, the President, who staked his foreign policy claim as being diametrically opposed to many of predecessors policies in the Middle East, has repeated the phrase ‘no boots on the ground’ (or other, similar iterations) throughout his tenure in the White House.

Similarly, the White House seems again to be entering into Syria with plenty of good intentions but no real strategy, the perfect ingredients for mission creep, the dreaded fear of critics from his left as well as isolationists to his right. However, several key factors suggest that this is not the wholesale change that many suggest and instead is merely a slight tweak to the already existing policy consisting of airpower, selective use of raids, and symbolic action, especially against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

First, the nature of the deployment suggests a limited interest in bringing about real change in U.S. policy in the country. Less than 50 soldiers – White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest emphasized the ‘less’ in the phrase repeatedly today while remaining opaque on any further numbers – is not really sufficient to bring down anything other than small and relatively weakly defended targets. Even with air support – whose efficacy is constantly being called into questioned given the ferocity of the campaign and ISIS’s relatively strong staying power over the last year – less than 50 troops does not signal an about face in U.S. policy, a strong commitment to changing the facts on the ground in a total and meaningful way.

Similarly, the fact that the Special Operations forces enter the conflict under the auspices of advising local forces suggests that the White House is not interested in inserting U.S. forces directly into harm’s way. An astute observer could point out that this was exactly how Kennedy began involvement in Vietnam War under his watch, but this is precisely the point. Everyone watching the conflict is going to be analyzing the actions of these 50 from every possible angle and most American observers – as well as others – will have Vietnam firmly in mind when evaluating their actions. Mission creep is always an concern, whether stated or unstated, and given the lack of will in the U.S. for engagement in Syria, direct military action endangers the existing mission. While few expect 50 Special Operations forces not to fight at all, the politics surrounding their deployment will make large involvements difficult without a major shift within Washington and the United States regarding the Syrian conflict.

Additionally, the same factors that have bedeviled the United States since the beginning of the Syrian war continue to hamper U.S. ambitions in the country. The multilayered nature of the conflict and the ever-shifting web of alliances means that the U.S. will continue to have difficulty finding long-term allies. Day after day, groups make and break an ever expanding list of temporary agreements, often putting groups that envision a secular and diverse Syria on the same page with religious extremists and al-Qaeda. The recent and spectacular failure of U.S.-trained rebels in Syria shows how badly the situation has deteriorated and how few recruits remain amenable to working with the U.S. against ISIS in the region. As has been pointed out repeatedly but somehow lost on starry eyed dreamers hopeful for a more muscular U.S. policy in the country, a not insignificant number of the groups fighting in Syria are not in line with U.S. ideals and would not necessarily represent U.S., Russian, or European dreams for the future of the country, thus further limiting the pool of potential recruits.

In the search for dependable allies in the country, the U.S. has consistently fallen back to championing the cause of the Kurds. While the Kurds have proven dependable cobelligerents in Syria and beyond, the relationship between the leading group, the YPG, and the regime is at best unknown and there is a good chance that fighting in league with certain elements of the Kurdish resistance will serve Assad and provide a conduit through which U.S. military information can pass directly (and illicitly) to Damascus. Similarly, there are significant limits to relying on groups that have frayed relationships with a number of Syria’s many minority groups. Charges of ethnic cleansing have been repeatedly leveled at Kurdish groups operating in Syria, and recent accusations from Amnesty International can and should call into question the sterling reputation that Kurdish groups enjoy carte blanche in certain U.S. policy circles.

These actions – and the distrust that they sow – will make it difficult for Kurdish groups to hold onto to areas in which they are not the majority long term without slipping into the brutality that the U.S. is trying to stop. While there are no perfect sides in any war, the relatively narrow attraction of Kurdish forces to the larger Syrian population poses a particular problem for U.S. forces operating in the country. Despite the impressive gains made by Kurdish forces over the last year, Kurdish groups still have tenuous control over much of their forward operating territory. Similarly, Turkish concerns about Kurdish control over Syria, particularly border areas, tempers the strength of Kurdish gains and gives pause to astute observers who might be willing to throw the full weight behind Syrian Kurdish forces. U.S. forces – ever cautious given the United States’ discomfort with full-fledged combat – need the safest, most flexible staging area possible, meaning that the expanding Kurdish-controlled territories from which U.S. forces will operate is in reality much smaller than it initially appears. This limited area and constrictive alliance should dampen the enthusiasm of anyone expecting a major policy change towards the conflict.

All of these issues present serious challenges to U.S. efforts to mount a serious campaign against ISIS and the Assad regime within Syria but pale in comparison to the elephant in the room: U.S. ambivalence in Syria. While Washington’s rhetoric has not significantly shifted since the early days of the conflict – Assad has lost legitimacy and cannot be part of Syria’s future – it has never advanced a serious plan to take on Assad directly, despite several notable opportunities to do so, most significantly in the aftermath of the gas attacks in August 2013 that nearly led to major world involvement in Syria’s war. Again, a desire to avoid major entanglements in the Middle East has been at the forefront of the minds of many U.S. policymakers and voters, limiting American involvement in the region despite the growing humanitarian concerns.

These reservations might not have proved the undoing of Washington’s aspirations for a democratic Syria if not for the steadfast and – recently – exponentially increasing support from Moscow and Tehran for Assad. The Russian airstrikes that began on 30 September sent a message not only to the United States and Europe, but also to Russian allies in the Caucuses, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe: Moscow is willing to go to great lengths to defend its allies, regardless of their behavior, strategic importance, or adversaries. Recent news that Russia is transporting Iranian arms into Moscow gives further evidence of how deep of a commitment Tehran and Moscow have for their long time but beleaguered ally. Tehran and Moscow have signaled both to the West and their allies around the world that Syria represents a fundamental part of their sphere of influence. Washington and its allies have not responded in a way to give observers any reason to think otherwise.

The most recently announced U.S. plans in Syria are nothing more than the continuation of the token efforts in Syria that the U.S. has insisted on pursuing throughout the conflict. Although the deployment of 50 plus or minus Special Operations forces – advising or otherwise – might give the United States the ability to conduct small raids on high value targets or bring about small but critically important counterterrorism objectives, they do not suggest that Washington has changed its tune in Syria somehow. For better or worse, symbolic is about as deep as it gets for Washington’s policy in Syria these days. In the coming days, discussions in Vienna may signal a breakthrough in world policy via Syria – the continuation of the existing stalemate, a renewed push from Gulf states towards Assad’s ouster, or even a comprehensive agreement between Iran, Moscow, and Washington, whatever form it might take – but until such details are known, today’s announcement will stand merely as one of many that proclaimed new action in Syria while preserving the U.S. policy of calculated inaction.


Russian Involvement in Syria: the Beginning of the End?

Recent news of increased Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria and – to a lesser extent – Iraq  have left many observers in Western capitals scrambling to make sense of these developments. While few believed that Putin or Iran would simply abandon their longtime ally in Assad, Iran and Russia surprised many by pairing their traditional material and moral support with high-profile military operations and intelligence cooperation to strengthen their influence within the region. These efforts came to a head when Russia began launching airstrikes in Syria to shore up their failing ally. In doing so, Russia and Iran made their intentions to maintain and expand their influence in the region clear.

It is certainly true that despite their common enemy in the Islamic State, Western leaders do not see eye to eye with their counterparts in Tehran and Moscow, at least given their official positions. Russia and Iran, whether in their respective capitals or in their statements at the UN, emphasize the necessity to fight terrorism. Western powers have resisted attempts from Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran to focus on terrorism without addressing what they see as the underlying causes, Assad. However, an increase in Russian and Iranian activity in the region could in fact be a harbinger of a final, peaceful settlement to the nearly five-year-old conflict, if the two countries are able to separate their interests from Assad’s interests.

Clearly, Russian and Iranian support for Assad and the Syrian regime more broadly is not surprising. The two countries have been Syria’s most steadfast allies for some time and while many hoped that Assad’s extreme response to the protests that erupted against his rule in 2011, such hopes were short lived. Iran’s geographical proximity and Russia’s traditional interest in the region have outlasted many events and as such, they are not willing to shortchange their interests. Any solution to the conflict that seeks to supplant their interests in the region will require incredible force, not only against the Syrian government, loyalist militias, rival rebels and (hopefully) the Islamic State, but also against the inevitable conflict with Iran and Russian that comes after such a victory, whether through direct combat or proxies. Barring such willingness to use force, there will be no solution to the war in Syria that sees Iran and Russia sacrifice their influence for either human rights or the strategic interests of others.

Why is Syria so important to Russia? Observers point to many reasons, including the Middle East’s historic import, Russia’s naval base in Tartus (its principal warm water port, though not contiguous to Russia), and the desire to slow the expansion of US influence in the region. There is certainly merit to all these claims and it is worth noting that while Russian influence may be on the rise in Tel Aviv and Riyadh, Moscow simply does not have the clout that the US does – along with the chorus of other Western states that emphasize democracy – nor does it possess the economic power to make jumping ship from the West a worthwhile endeavor for states in the region. While Russia exports weapons to a number of states in the region, it cannot compete with the US in the general market. Simply put, no other state can be listed on the same page as Syria when discussing Moscow’s interests in the Middle East. Russia cannot win a war against the US on the basis of soft power (hearts and minds) nor can its economy power an aggressive buyout of Arab capitals and diplomatic circles.

Medvedev and Assad (wikicommons)

It is also worth noting that while war rages in Syria, war continues in Ukraine and tensions remain high throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In these areas, where many countries are stuck between the promise of Western opulence and Russian power, NATO expansion and the increase of Chinese influence is a subject ever on the mind of decision makers in Moscow. As Russia seeks to preserve and expand its influence in the Caspian and beyond, as well as rollback NATO advances in the Baltics and Caucasus region, standing with Syria sends a powerful message to potential allies that will not soon be forgotten. This is especially true when the promise of a Western lifestyle comes with the demands of reforms and restructuring, something that Russian involvement in a state is less likely to include.  Any ally in the region, particularly autocratic leaders, can look to Russian involvement in Syria, safe in the knowledge that Russia will remain with dependable leaders through the bitter end.

For Iran, losing Syria would mean losing its chief ally in the region. Although Jordan’s King Abdullah has repeatedly warned of the emergence of a “Shia Crescent” in the region, Iran’s influence remains limited, carrying significant weight in Syria and Iraq alone. Yes, Iran commands influence as the sole great power in the region to aggressively stand against the US and other Western states in the region, but its influence is most notable when discussing its support for non-state entities and militant groups: Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ansar Allah (the Houthi Movement), and Hezbollah. And it is true that Hezbollah – due to Lebanon’s fractured politics – commands attention in Lebanon, but this has also served to chain Hezbollah to Assad and deploy its forces to Syria, weakening its influence at home. While Iran can claim a modicum of influence in a number of dissident and anti-Western movements in the region, US influence stretches from Morocco and Tunis to Riyadh and Baghdad; there is little chance of Iran overtaking the US regarding influence. Iran cannot afford to sacrifice its only state ally in the region, regardless of how much attention it demands in anti-US circles. Iran’s image in the region stems from its underdog status, not its outsized influence in Arab capitals. Moreover, the anti-Shia sentiments prevelant throughout the MENA means that Iran is eager to play down the sectarian element of its power, meaning that relationships that hinge purely on identity-based claims – such as the Houthi movement – matter less than those that carry regional weight – such Iran’s support for Hamas.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (wikicommons)

What does the endgame look like right now for Iran and Russia? They have made their intentions clear: to cement their influence in the region and curb the expansion of influence of states who oppose them. However, if Russia shores up their ally in the Levant without actually ending the fighting, they will simply make themselves one more party to an already intractable conflict. If Russia  and Iran could maintain their influence in Syria by making themselves part of the solution – regardless of  the true equity of such a deal – they could rest easy in the knowledge that their influence is unchallenged in Syria while also quieting critics in the West who use support for Assad as an effective battering ram against their bloody policies. Four factors are necessary in such a solution.

First, any solution that hopes to be amenable to the majority of Syrians must address the demands of the masses. While the West likely hopes for a diverse, tolerant, and multi-sectarian democracy, the most pressing need for Syrians is an end to the bloodshed and the promise of safety after a peace deal is signed. Simply put, Syrians need peace and to know that after agreeing to continue their lives as normal, security and intelligence services will not engage in acts of retribution after the war is completed. Safety and stability, the most underrated features of states and automobiles, are key.

At the same time, however, Syrians are very aware of what has driven them to flee their homes and take to the streets over the last four years; as terrible as ISIS is (which alone exceeds my descriptions), it is not ISIS that has dropped barrel bombs into crowded residential areas, bombs that kill soldier and civilian alike. It is fallacious for us to equivocate between ISIS and the regime when Assad makes a habit of starving areas controlled by rebels. Given this, Syrians will not accept a post war status quo that sees Assad remain in power. No agreement that contains Assad will be accepted by those who fought and died – or were killed – by the Assad government and thus, Assad can be no more than a temporary place holder moving forward, at best. If Russian and Iran want to maintain their influence and reach an acceptable solution with the Syrian people – and the US and Europe for that matter – they must find leadership in Damascus that is both amenable to their interests and the Syrian people, one without the face that Syrians have learned to fear.

Second, for obvious reasons, an agreement must take away the power of spoilers to interrupt an agreement to push for their own ends. Part of this can be ensured by removing the principal driver of opposition to the government in Damascus – Assad – to ensure that groups that can’t be or are not defeated military do not stand in direct opposition to the post-war agreement. However, removing Assad by itself will not satisfy all actors and any power wishing to enforce a post-Assad agreement must learn from the failures of state building in Libya, neutralizing those who can engage in military action at a whim for their own ends. Such action could reveal a true divide between Western powers, tied between their own ideals and reality, reticent to undertake action given the human and material costs, and Russia and Iran, keen to preserve a tangible advantage in tumultuous region. The West, while it has stood unwaveringly in the corner of human rights and democracy, has proven willing to invest the resources and manpower necessary to engage all actors in the conflict – likely militarily – that an ultimate solution entails. A final agreement in Syria will necessitate a solution amenable to the majority and a willingness to engage those oppose such an idea. Moscow and Tehran should take note and be willing to engage these actors, regardless of the costs, if they want to be important stakeholders in Damascus after any agreement is reached. Such resolve could supply the necessary ingredients to final success, if Tehran and Moscow are willing to tolerate Assad’s ouster.

Third, a final agreement must satisfy the international community’s desire to remove major human rights abusers from power in Damascus. Does this necessitate regime change? Sort of. Does it necessarily challenge Moscow’s and Tehran’s influence in the state? Not by a long shot. Russia and Iran need a new face to placate both Syrians and Westerners: Assad has overseen the most egregious of human right’s violations and no moral observers can conscionably accept his rule as legitimate in a post-war state. However, while the Assad family has traditionally been the backbone of Russian and Iranian support within the country, the two countries possess influence that goes beyond personal connections; each has something – perhaps not universally benevolent – to offer to potential leaders in Syria and despite the country’s history of despotism, the pool of potential leaders certainly extends beyond one individual. There is nothing to prevent Russia and Iran from preserving their influence in Syria in a postwar agreement – not in Western statements against Assad, nor in the lukewarm support for democratic elements as the war rages on.

If these criteria could make an agreement possible, what does this mean for backers of anti-Assad groups within Syria? Saudi Arabia and Turkey have made no secret of their desire for regime change in Damascus, seeking to install a ruler (likely Sunni) that would check Iranian and Russian ambitions in the region. While not likely to be happy with such an outcome, it is worth remembering that Turkey enjoyed normal relations with Syria during its ‘zero problems with neighbors’ heyday. In spite of the ongoing war in Syria, Turkey has continued to work with Russia inside of Turkey, much to the chagrin of Washington. Turkey has proven capable of living next to a Russian-backed Syria – an Assad Syria – and need not worry about a rising Iran in the same way that Gulf states might. Its clout and preeminence in the Middle East exist now in spite of Assad and can continue to do so into the future.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (wikicommons)

As for the Gulf states, it is true that the Iran deal and the expected ascendance of Iran within the region give Gulf monarchies concern. The Iran nuclear deal, coupled with the absence of US action in Syria, have led many to believe that Washington is either looking to side with Tehran in its pursuit of regional power or willing to stand back as Iran turns the region into its own backyard. While the rhetoric Tehran and Washington would seem to dampen enthusiasm for those who expect a détente between the two powers in the near future, it is not unreasonable for Gulf states to worry about the implications of the West’s new orientation with regards to Iran. Clearly, the deal has not dampened Iran’s ambitions in the region and Gulf countries are rightly worried about an Iran that has not changed its intentions and now enjoys at least limited tolerance from the US. However, Washington has been steadfast in its insistence that the Iran deal does not signal a new chapter in Iranian-US relations and rhetoric from Iran seems to indicate reciprocal feelings. Washington has also intimated that it intends to supply its Middle East allies – especially Gulf states and Israel – with the military technology necessary to prevent Iran from assuming total hegemony in the region. Thus, while Saudi Arabia and other states are certainly concerned about the outcome of events in Syria, there concerns are far from existential. And the preservation of the status quo in Damascus would do nothing save preventing Gulf capitals from expanding their influence in the region.

If such a deal succeeds in ceasing hostilities, can we really say that Syrians have fared any better, allowing the same powers that enabled a bloody dictator to hold on to power for four plus years to continue to exert influence in the country? While it may be unpalatable, an agreement that preserves Iranian and Russian influence while moving al-Assad from the equation would undoubtedly benefit Syrians.

First, returning to a country without Assad will go to great lengths to placate those who rose up in opposition to him and also allow a new set of hands on the reins. The Assad family has governed Syria for more than a quarter century and though it has not run the country into the ground – until recently – it has generated a not insignificant degree of animosity in its wake. Allowing a new leader to assume power – content with the knowledge that their interests are thoroughly established in the minds of the country’s leadership – Russia and Iran can allow the people of Syria more than a bit of breathing room. As we have seen in the revolution in Egypt, the genuine underlying democratic ambitions of revolutions are not as strong as Western backers would like. In the case of Egypt, a genuine democratic opposition to Mubarak’s 30 year rule was enough to oust him from power but not enough to establish lasting democracy in the country. In its place, many Egyptians have accepted the rule of Sisi – similarly strong armed and lacking in democratic credentials – in the place of Mubarak. Replacing Assad as the face of Syria would go a long in way in placating the masses and ensuring stability, regardless of the policies of a post-Assad government.

Second, any agreement that ends the conflict will allow the return to normalcy for those who remain in the country and potential return for those who fled the regime abroad. This would not only stop the killing that has wracked the country for the last four plus years but also help rebuild Syria’s economy, which has suffered damage to the tune of $220 billion since the war began. While democratic ideals undoubtedly lie at the heart of the issue for many, a likely greater number would be happy to see their lives return to normal, seeing peace prosper in the face of bloodshed.

A negotiated settlement would facilitate such an outcome better than an outright military victory by either side. First, a settlement agreed to by major powers would also limit the funding of proxy militias roaming the country, reducing both their numbers and influence. The growth of militias and explosion of offshoots is a key factor in continuing the violence in Syria, as outside powers ship arms and other materiel into the country in an effort to effect a military victory for the ‘right’ side. Additionally, by removing Assad in a peace deal, the question of transitional justice is sidestepped. While this is does not address the legitimate and longstanding grievances that underlie the people’s rejection of Assad as a leader nor the barbarism committed by his regime as they furiously clung to power, it is worth remembering that removed from power, Assad would most likely live out the remainder of his life in exile. It also worth questioning whether people should be driven by their  ideals – to seek a democratic Syria and righting the wrongs of the past – or the reality on the ground – which promises a real life for Syrians weary of broken promises and years of bloodshed. In the face of more than 200,000 dead, I feel it is necessary to entertain any solution could succeed in bringing about long lasting peace in the country. It does not make me proud. It does make me human.

Unfortunately, politics is the art of the possible. The field of politics makes short work of those who wish to implement only ideal solutions. No realistic situation at the current moment can give Syrians what they so thoroughly deserve. No group that engages in atrocities in atrocities should be allowed to roam free anywhere in the world, especially after hostilities have ceased. While our morality calls us to condemn such acts and the individuals who perpetrate them, our common sense compels us to search for common ground and a solution that, while far from perfect, guarantees a far better life for Syrians than the hell that they currently face day in and day out, with little prospects for improvement. Acknowledging the interests of outside powers in Syria does not ‘sell out’ Syria to the highest bidder; rather, it gives the Syria people real prospects to live with dignity. Though well intentioned, refusing compromise in pursuit of the perfect solution does nothing but further the suffering of Syria and its people and our common humanity must call us to end such grievous violations of human rights, no matter how.

Awash in Blood: Refugees, Opposition and Air Strikes

When the broken body of three year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach, the refugee crisis that had been building on the European horizon came to a thunderous head. Fleeing the violence in Syria, he and his family – natives of Kobani – risked everything for the hope of a better life. They decided, as so many have before and will continue to do, to pile into overcrowded and unstable makeshift boats, a risk that cost the lives of Aylan, his brother Galip, and mother Rehen. Only his father, Abdullah, survived.

Aylan’s story, though tragic, is frighteningly common. While countries neighboring Syria have long borne the brunt of Bashar al-Assad’s systemic targeting of civilians and infrastructure, European countries were largely spared the humanitarian catastrophe of the war in Syria, save for the sporadic attacks launched by returned fighters or sympathetic supporters among their native populations. In contrast, countries including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have been dealing with Syria’s refugee crisis since the beginning, now hosting several million Syrian refugees between them. Although discord is apparent in comparing the response of states like Hungary to that of Germany or Sweden, wealthier European states have begun to step up their humanitarian response, with Germany pledging resources and promising to accept an ever-expanding number of refugees into their borders, as other states offer somewhat smaller offers. Our shared humanity and morality compels us all to respond to the crisis with concerted effort and compassion, doing whatever is necessary to repair the damage inflicted on the lives of millions of refugees. However, without addressing the underlying cause of the refugee crisis – the war in Syria – European action will only treat the symptoms, not the problem.

As the war in Syria approaches its fifth anniversary, the country – and the opposition that arose to save it from the clutches of a blookd thirsty dictator – lies in ruins. The initially peaceful and unified opposition to Assad’s rule quickly deteriorated into armed conflict, with regional and sectarian differences manifesting themselves in an ever growing list of militias representing various regions, ethnicities, and creeds. While the Islamic State (ISIS) remains foremost among these in the minds of Western observes – due chiefly to their brutal acts spread via social media – the truth is that a great number of militias exercise authority across Syria, often violently, with many belonging to a number of extremist factions. This is particularly true when discussing the groups that have been most successful in acquiring and holding territory, namely the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, both members of Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). These groups do not have the same notoriety as ISIS but also exact draconian punishments on those living within Syria, often for the most minor of infractions. A number of nationalist groups, with views more amenable to Western backers, do continue to operate in the southwest of the country, but their proximity to the capital and moderate beliefs have made them easy targets for the regime. In short, the ideological bent of the most effective fighting forces in the conflict make cooperation unappetizing or impossible.

Although the West’s attention is mostly focused on the worrying rise of radical groups within the conflict, one fact is undeniable: most refugees are fleeing the regime. The regime’s tactics – including the use of indiscriminate barrel bombs, which kill hundreds if not thousands every month – have laid waste to the civilian population and the infrastructure that they rely on for their survival and livelihoods. To be clear, most Syrians are not in love with ISIS. They are, however, most fearful of the actor who attacks them with the greatest frequency and ferocity: the Assad regime.

In order to stop these air raids, which destroy the possibility of life, freedom of movement, and livelihoods for Syria’s millions of residents, it is necessary control Syria’s airspace. Despite the ever shrinking area that Assad is able to actually exert control over, the Syrian Arab Air Force faces little opposition from armed groups within the country. While the downing of planes carrying pilots is dramatic and captures the attention of onlookers everywhere, the Syrian air force’s technological advantage ensures that it will remain unchallenged in the absence of a major intervention from outside powers.

In order to mount effective control of Syria’s airspace and deny the regime the possibility of further carrying out aerial attacks across the country, Turkey, the United States, and Arab and European allies need to implement an effective no fly zone over disputed areas, the areas that the regime is most likely to attack in an effort to maintain control. The recent developments in Turkish-U.S. military cooperation should prove encouraging on this front, but this is far from a foregone conclusion and will require constant, concerted effort. Moreover, such a move would complicate the US realtions with the various actors in the region, forcing them to balance complicated equations with Ankara, the Syrian opposition, Kurds, the Assad government and ISIS. It is also important to understand that a no-fly zone could serve to stop humanitarian suffering in affected areas without necessarily effecting the regime change that Turkey and the Gulf states would like to see

Indeed, seeking regime change in Syria has always been a priority for Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. These states seek to install a Sunni-friendly ally in an increasingly sectarian region, pulling the state away from Iran’s influence. To this end, they have spent millions equipping innumerable factions of varying degrees of fanaticism with arms and other killing machines. To the consternation of the US, many of these factions share little in common with the West other than their resolute opposition to the Assad government. And to the frustration of onlookers everywhere – especially within the Arab world – Gulf states, renowned for their wealth and oil deposits, have steadfastly refused to accept refugees, citing a variety of reasons, including legal obstacles and small indigenous populations. While the world is right to recognize and criticize this contradiction, it is unlikely that Gulf states will change their tune anytime soon. The majority of states participating in the war against the Syrian government have shown an uncommon strength in standing up to international pressure in spite of public humiliation, and there is no reason to think that a policy that will cost billions and could fundamentally change the nature of their states via population shifts will be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

Whether Gulf intransigency in accepting refugees is shrewd policy or morally bankrupt escape artistry, it is and likely will remain reality. Because of this, European and non-Gulf MENA states must continue to do all that is possible to alleviate the suffering of refugees, as they have for years. While refugee resettlement is done in the hopes that it is temporary, Europe, Lebanon, Turkey and other states cannot afford to have millions of refugees living amongst them while being forced underground or enduring the stigma of ‘the other in our midst’. Such situations breed distrust among both populations, as well as discontent and violence. Given that refugees are a reality for Germany, Lebanon, Hungary, and other states, they cannot afford to undertake symbolic moves that will haunt them for years down the road.

While Gulf states are not likely to begin accepting refugees in large numbers in the near future, allies can continue to pressure them to maintain high levels of support for humanitarian causes, as well as coordinating with the U.S. and other military allies in the region to deny Assad unchallenged aerial authority and, hopefully, reduce the suffering left in the wake of his bombing raids. Gulf states, despite the recent dips in the price of oil, might be even more willing to donate money to humanitarian causes with the knowledge that there was a concerted plan in place that served their ends to ultimately oust Assad.

Reality, playing out daily in drownings and daring border crossings across the Middle East and Europe, is grim. One could be forgiven for placing head in hand, sobbing in disbelief, and – ultimately – giving up, saying, “what could possibly stop this?” While the situation is unbearably desperate, ignoring reality would prove to be even more damaging. While a number of states have shown hostility to consensus, pragmatism, and refugees – even including outright racism and sectarianism – a solution that insists on a non-reality will fail every time. European states are finally feeling what states neighboring Syria have been dealing with for years. They must, as other states have, answer the call. Now is not the time to point fingers at hypocrites or those seeking war. Humanitarian assistance must remain the priority for every state touching this crisis, and any military measures that are undertaken must keep eye on alleviating the suffering endured by millions of Syrians every day, as well as bridging common ground between Syria’s allies, enemies, and those who merely want to reduce the humanitarian suffering within the theater of the conflict. Even among these fractured lines in an often fractured region, there is still common ground to be found.

Talking Turkey: Making Sense of Turkey’s Elections

On Sunday, Turks headed to the polls and cast their ballots in one of the most exciting elections in recent memory. The results can be viewed here, thanks to wonderful techno-wizards at Anadolu Agency (Turkish state news). The outcome is still uncertain, with numerous analysts making predictions about yet announced deals between different parties. While we wait for these results to be announced, let’s briefly examine some of the most significant outcomes of the election.

The two largest takeaways from most analysts deal with the surprisingly strong showing from the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (Turkish: HDP) and the failure of the leading Justice and Development Party (Turkish: AKP) to obtain an outright majority. The latter is most surprising given the fact that the AKP has managed to achieve impressive majorities in every election since coming on the Turkish political scene in full force since 2002. The loss is doubly troubling to the AK Party leadership, as the party hoped to use elections to generate a supermajority that would allow them to amend the constitution and grant the president – currently Recep Tayyip Erdogan, former PM from AKP and Turkey’s star statesman – a significantly greater role in the country’s politics.

It is tempting to view these results as rolling back the tide of AKP’s recent success, but such analyses would be premature. AKP remains Turkey’s most popular political party by far and while they have not reaped the same electoral bounty that they had in the past, no other party comes close in terms of level of support. AKP has not faced a setback like Sunday’s since coming to power, but the party still maintains the same appeal that drove millions to vote for them in election after election – references to the country’s religious and conservative heritage with an emphasis on economic growth. While some of the recent gaffes associated with Erdogan could spell trouble if they continue in the future, Erdogan is a born politician and has surmounted greater odds in the past.

The real question for AKP moving forward is whether the party can continue to amass huge leads while facing parties that seem to have learned AK Party’s lessons regarding building a party base. For years, AKP succeeded by campaigning among the country’s interior residents and the religious. The development in their name is not just for show – Turkey has experienced impressive growth in recent history, thanks in no small part to AKP’s business friendly policies. HDP and CHP both campaigned on policies that would put more money in the pockets of the country’s working poor. Such policies acknowledge the successes that AKP has experienced in building electoral success. While HDP and CHP may fail to deliver on such promises – perhaps returning voters to AKP – should they succeed, AKP will have to continue to innovate, pursuing policies that speak directly to those who need economic development most.

HDP’s success is encouraging for those who seek greater Kurdish participation in Turkish politics. The party succeeded for the first time in passing the 10% threshold necessary to take seats in parliament, taking away sizable votes from AKP in the process due to the way the country allocates parliamentary seats. As mentioned, HDP also made efforts to make economic reforms a significant portion of their platform. Such victories signal success for Kurds in advancing their cause in a way that includes them within the future of Turkey. Still, Kurds have traditionally given substantial support to AKP. While the failure of Turkey to act decisively in the face of ISIS assault on the Kurdish town of Kobani may have tarnished AKP in the eyes of many Kurds, Kurdish votes are not guaranteed to any party, Kurdish or otherwise, and HDP will have to make good on their promise to deliver results to those – predominantly Kurds – who voted them into office. Moreover, Erdogan has made (incomplete) strides in trying to resolve the ever present Kurdish issue in Turkey and his status as a conservative Turk gives him influence over the population as a whole that HDP leaders lack. Moving forward in solving the Kurdish question will require HDP to work in concert with Turkish allies to find a solution that incorporates Kurds into the Turkish nation while allaying the fears of nationalist Turks.

The big question that remains is how AKP will govern moving forward. The three rival parties have all publicly ruled out entering into a coalition with AKP, raising the question of how they will gain the 18 votes necessary to form a majority government. Under Turkish law, new elections must be run in 45 days if no government emerges from an election. It seems unlikely now that a coalition could be reached but Aaron Stein has written a piece entertaining a number of different possibilities for the Atlantic Council here. So as to not steal too much of his thunder, I encourage you to read them, rather than have me recap them here. However, it suffices to say that AKP is in a difficult position, forcing it to either seek a coalition with the conservative MHP that limits AK Party’s ambitions in expanding presidential power, kick the ball to the remaining parties and charge them with forming a government, or simply call for early elections.

Either way, there is much to be seen as the electoral drama unfolds. Should the choice for early elections ultimately prevail, how HDP and MHP fare in subsequent elections will be a key test of their continued strength. Failure would indicate that Turkey’s electorate has not changed substantially since elections past, giving AKP a reason to breathe easy and regroup for future elections. On the other hand, should HDP and MHP continue their strong showing in future elections, AKP will have to seriously consider their previous successes and recent developments in effort to maintain strength going forward.

Political Earthquake Shakes Saudi Arabia

Today’s announcement placing Mohammed bin Nayef as Saudi Arabia’s heir to the monarchy’s throne sent shockwaves throughout the Kingdom and beyond. Such a decision, not necessarily expected, was inevitable and signals the ascendance of the next generation of Saudi leaders. The implications of this decision are far reaching and too nuanced to cover in a single post; however, King Salman has shown that he will be more than a placeholder between King Abdullah and the previous generation and that he will leave a lasting legacy, whatever history judges it to be.

Today’s reshuffling resulted in the retirement of a number of veteran leaders. The most visible of these changes deals with the retirement of former Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and Saud al-Faisal, the former foreign minister and – until today – the longest serving foreign minister in the world. The reasons for this change are not entirely clear to outside observers at the moment (as I do not consider myself to be an expert) and likely reflect both policy considerations as well as intra-family politicking. Such reasons will likely surface in DC and Gulf-based analyses in the coming days. The fact that al-Jazeera is not running a counter narrative suggests that there are limited leads to pursue at the moment that directly challenge the official story; such ideas, however, are speculation and will be proven or disproven in the coming days and weeks.

At the moment, the most visible effects deal with the promotion of a new generation of leaders. The position of Crown Prince is now occupied by Mohammed bin Nayef, the former Deputy Crown Prince (second in line for the throne) and nephew of King Salman. Additionally, Mohammed bin Salman, King Salman’s son, will assume the position of Deputy Crown Prince. Both leaders are part of the third generation of Saudi leaders, the grandsons of Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state. Such a shakeup highlights several important developments and signals the beginning of a new era/

First, the third generation of Saudi leaders is here and will not be going away; their influence – though not unlimited – cannot be denied and will only grow. Muqrin bin Abdulaziz was the last remaining potential successor from current King Salman’s generation still in line for the throne. Now that Muqrin is out of the running, the death of Salman will cement the ascension of the third generation of Saudi leaders, with little chance of a change of course. As I have written before, the new generation of Saudi leaders is better educated than previous generations and is far more cosmopolitan, having spent time living and studying around the world, many of them in the US. However, we should not equate such experiences with favoring for Western-style policies – outside, perhaps, of more liberal trade policies – and it would be dangerous to forecast about social or foreign policy solely on the basis of the next generation’s foreign work and study experience.

Second, Salman is willing to flex his power and despite concerns about his health, he will continue to shape the Saudi political scene in years to come. In addition to cementing the role of the next generation in the Kingdom’s leadership, the decision elevates Salman’s son, Mohammed, to second in line for the throne. It also ejects Muqrin, who had previously clashed with Mohammed bin Nayef regarding a response to domestic unrest. Whether this played a role in Salman’s decision remains to be seen, but regardless, Salman has proven willing and able to influence the process and substantially shakeup the line of succession in favor of his lineage. Similarly, the decision to relieve Saud bin Faisal and replace him with Adel al-Jubeir further isolates the elements of the Abdullah and Faisal factions of the royal family and entrenches the influence of the Sudairi clan, of which Salman, Mohammed bin Nayef, and Mohammed bin Salman are members.

As I wrote about previously, it is difficult to forecast about the policy decisions to be undertaken by the upcoming generations of Saudi leaders. Decisions regarding nominations for political office in the Kingdom reflect both merit and internal family dynamics and often deal more with internal concerns than external concerns. The only sure thing in the future of the next generation of Saudi leadership is their ascendance – the decisions they will inevitably undertake involve the weighing of threats, both internal and external, that we cannot predict today. While the next generation is better educated than previous generations, there is no reason to think that the Saudi royal family will relinquish any of the power that they have accumulated over the last (almost) century. The new leaders may rule with a greater eye on the international community, but we will likely see the same jockeying for position and politicking in the House of Saud for years to come.

Netanyahu to Congress: What does it mean?

The world is now familiar with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week to the American congress. While the propriety of Netanyahu delivering a speech questioning the policies of a sitting American President has attracted headlines, far more interesting is what the speech reveals about Israel’s and Iran’s relative power in the region. While Iran has suffered greatly under recent sanctions, its influence has grown. In contrast, Israel’s sphere of influence – similar to those of other US allies in the region – has been threatened by growing non-state actors and ascendant Shia powers. All of this means that the US is not likely to act against Iran outside of diplomatic channels and should it desire to do so, Israel will be forced to act independently or in conjunction with a patchwork of anti-Iranian powers in the region, creating a temporary tapestry of anti-Iran states.

Save his controversial visit, nothing about Netanyahu’s speech falls into the realm of game changers. As many (including Obama) have acknowledged, Bibi’s speech contained little in the way of new claims or information. Netanyahu repeated his previous warnings regarding Iran’s aggressive regional intentions and nuclear capabilities, updated for technological advancements while failing to put forth a new policy that could serve to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region. While he did work in comments specific to the ongoing deal, his rejection for the current negotiations has been and remains categorical and could be best categorized as “You gotten this much. Now ask for more!” As such, there is little in the way of new demands in Netenyahu’s speech. Rather, he continues to seek to shore up opposition to a more friendly deal between Iran and the P5+1. The Israeli president did not put forth a new position; instead, his speech is best viewed as a last-ditch effort to save a floundering anti-Iran position despite years of developments in the region. Such a position is at the crux of Bibi’s failure in attempting to persuade a change in US policy towards Iran: with the stakes raised and little in the way of options, the US has no choice but to push forward with negotiations unless it wishes to push beyond what Iran is willing to give and risk severely escalating the current situation.

Why has Israel remained so categorically opposed to a nuclear Iran? Israel, despite continuing to grow economically, has seen its power relative to its neighbors decline. Abundant oil has allowed Gulf petrostates to amass incredible amounts of wealth, wealth that has been invested in a number of fields within the state, including the military. Additionally, Turkey has continued to play a dominant role in the region despite the changing geopolitical considerations that have emerged in the 20+ years after the Cold War. While Israel was and remains a small but powerful state, the region has seen other states grow in power to a greater degree in recent years, forcing Israel to reconsider its position in the region and ensure that traditional alliances – especially ones as decisive as its alliance with the US – remain in place to preserve the status quo. This is especially important given Israel’s controversial policy choices towards Palestinians at home and unfriendly states abroad, further isolating the power and indicating that – despite economic successes – Israel is a state stuck in stasis or, worse yet, decline.

While Israel has seen its stock fall relative to other regional powers in recent years, Iran’s influence has grown. Despite the weight of sanctions, Iran has grown into a major regional player. This has been highlighted by a number of regional powers in addition to Israel, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. While sanctions and current low oil prices have proven damaging to the Iranian economy, Iran has benefited from the fallout from the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. This, along with Hezbollah’s hold on the Shia electorate in Lebanon and Bashar al-Assad’s deft maneuvering in Syria – cleaving international support away from the opposition by allowing ISIS to grow – has ensured that, far from losing influence, Iran has gained despite suffering under the weight of sanctions. A nuclear bomb would offer an alternative to the US nuclear umbrella in the region, allowing a power with serious ideological credentials to project itself in the region independent of a major backer. Such a development would be a true game changer – the first ever alternative to US hegemony from within the region. While the US has not acquiesced to such a reality, it can exploit its position as a global power to twist such a revelation to its liking.  Israel, though powerful for its size, cannot do so; a nuclear Iran represents a threat that it cannot overcome domestically and is forced to seek support from abroad. The US has proven reticent in this regard and Israel is worried that the status quo – a peace deal with two powerful neighbors and extremely friendly relations with the US – could change in the near future, necessitating its prolonged, artificial survival or a cataclysmic shakeup that postpones such a change for years to come.

Did Netanyahu’s speech push Israel and the US farther apart? This is a distinct possibility but requires careful consideration that looks beyond the headlines. While Obama and Netanyahu have personal differences, the two countries remain closer than an outside analyst might otherwise predict. As the Israeli president indicated, the US continues to extend aid to the Jewish state in a number of non-controversial realms that other states – similarly sized but deficient in historical camaraderie and geopolitical importance – do not receive. Such offers indicate that Israel continues to play a special role in the minds of US policymakers

Despite the continuity of the singular relationship between the US and Israel, cracks do appear. Obama and Netayahu have been at odds numerous times in recent years over a number of issues. Most of these issues have been international in nature or had international implications – the Iran negotiations, developments in Egypt, and the eternal Palestinian question. Although Obama has maintained the same policy as his predecessors on paper regarding settlements, few can deny that the relationship between the two state has become strained in recent years – indeed, such strain precipitated Bibi’s appearance.

In such a situation, it is important to recall the effect that Hugo Chavez’s speech to the UN in 2006 had domestically. In a time of political polarization against the Iraq War, Chavez attacked a numer of unpopular policies of then sitting president George W. Bush. Far from galvanizing support against a relatively unpopular president, the speech served to rally politicians domestically, even those who disliked the Iraq War. In doing so, Chavez (and potentially Bibi) forgot an important lesson from the playground: no one can beat up my brother but me. Two parties fighting domestically will often band together when faced with an outside power that challenges the legitimacy of both of those fighting. Bibi certainly identified cleavages between Democrats and Republicans, but the blowback has been strong enough to question the wisdom of delivering the speech in the first place. While Netanyahu received a standing ovation from those in attendance, his popularity fell among the American people as a whole. Such a fall is counterproductive given the important role Israel places on its relationship with the US – the Jewish state cannot alienate the American left in order to court the right.

This would all be a moot point if Netanyahu succeeded in cementing a stronger deal that favors Israeli interests better than the expected deal does. Did he succeed? No. The current negotiations are the project of the past two sitting presidents. While Republicans have favored a deal that more strongly curbs Iran’s nuclear program, they do not have the power to undo Obama’s diplomatic efforts and face questions of alternatives if they should choose to do so. Additionally, the current controversy surrounding a letter to Iran – whose commentary was delivered by isolationist Rand Paul, no less – highlights the domestic concerns underlying  the choice of Republicans to reject anything Obama gains. Under our current partisan divide, anything that makes Obama look weak seems to make Republicans look strong by comparison. This is only more true amid an election cycle that is bereft of Republican candidates who can burnish serious foreign policy credentials. While Netenyahu did draw a crowd, he did not succeed in changing the minds of those he most needed to reach – the non-converted. Israel undoubtedly has a special place in the hearts of most Americans – conservative or liberal – but republican attendance was driven not by Zionist zeal but partisan objectives.

In the end, Benjamin Netenyahu did not get what he wanted and likely will not in the near future: a stronger US stand against Iran and assurances of mutual military action against the Middle East’s most surging power should other checks prove inadequate. The US will not risk confrontation with a rising power in order to appease a dependable but controversial ally. While this does bode poorly for Israel, it does give the Jewish state allies in the form of other non-Iranian allied state in the region, chief among them Saudi Arabia. Israel might feel forced to act, but it will not have to do so alone and will have at its side some of the most technologically-advanced armies and air forces in the Middle East. Still, these powers are constrained by their relationship with the US. They may be able to act independently in this regard, but will not be able to remain independent vis-a-vis trade deals and other important elements that make up the life blood of many states. A strike by Israel – possibly in concert with other, off the books, Arab allies – would force them to seek support from an ally other than the US, undermining the precarious position that pushed them to take action in the first place. Israel is thus stuck in a classic Catch 22 – it cannot depend on international support to fight off unfriendly regimes but cannot act as doing so would alienate the very allies upon which it depends.

In the end, a negotiated deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program benefits all, but benefits Iran more than Israel, leaving Israel to make up for these uneven gains. Iran would shirk the chains of international sanctions while being able to  export more of its oil, guaranteeing both energy independence and economic power. Iran’s trading partners in East Asia would be happy to accept increased oil flows at lower than current prices. The US would be able to deal with a new state in the region, confident – to a degree – that the existing agreement pushes off a fundamental change in the balance of power within the region for years to come. Such an agreement would also allow the US to concentrate its efforts elsewhere, allowing the much vaunted but often elusive ‘pivot to Asia’. Finally, an agreement would allow Israel and Saudi Arabia some degree of safety as they pursue their own strategic goals within the region, safe in the knowledge that while Iran is ascending, it will not do so immediately. Still, a negotiated final deal between Iran and the P5+1 would signal an ascendant Iran with the region suggesting that while Israel may rest easy in the near future, it must fundamentally reevaluate its geostrategic calculations in the future should it desire to remain a viable power for years to come.

Chapel Hill: A Delayed Response

Note: I wanted to post this earlier but it took a bit of time to shape it correctly. This is an important topic, one that will undoubtedly reappear in future posts.

The world is now familiar with the events that unfolded in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The tragic loss of life cannot be undone and attempts to rectify the causes of the shooting cannot resurrect, only prevent. The event raises important questions on the coverage of violence against minorities as well as the portrayal of Muslims as perpetrators of crime instead of victims. The aftermath of the shooting is also an opportunity for atheists to look at our own community. While as skeptics and atheists we often pride ourselves on intellectual rigor, we should acknowledge one fact: when it comes to Islam, the discussion takes on a tone far different than when discussing other religions. Of course, this in no way endorses the idea that somehow atheism contributed to the crimes that occurred in Chapel Hill. Atheism is simply a lack of belief and this lack of belief cannot compel someone to commit a crime. However, a stereotyping of a minority is beneath the atheist and skeptic community.

Debate and discussion of the drawbacks and fallacious claims of religion are the hallmarks of the growing atheist and skeptic community. Such debates strengthen the intellectual and ideological bedrock of the community while helping otherwise closeted atheists to feel less isolated. While there is much diversity within the community, many atheists tend to feel that religion exerts a palpable and often negative influence on a number of facets of American life. It is for this reason that many respected atheists, including Brian Dalton, Daniel Dennett, and Matt Dillahunty, have laid out respectful and nuanced criticisms of religion. At their best, these criticisms rely on an extensive understanding of the faith in question or the nature of faith itself. These conversations tend to go beyond simple diatribes – save for the firebrands who often dominate headlines – and critique not only the ways in which science, culture, and politics are harmed by the ongoing influence of religion in the modern world, but also the deeper elements of the faith that influence such beliefs.

The level of understanding among atheists, so evident when discussing the shortcomings and falsehoods of Christianity, decreases markedly when discussing Islam. Atheists remain the most knowledgeable group when it comes to world religions, but the discussion moves quickly to the most sensational aspects of Islam and the Middle East: terrorism and sharia law. Whereas Christianity is often discussed by former believers (now atheists) with a sound understanding of the text, few atheists have substantive knowledge of the Quran beyond a few select quotes dealing with violence or women’s rights. Even fewer prominent atheists have a functional knowledge of Arabic or the Middle East or significant scholarship in the field. A deep understanding rooted in text gives way to a kind of fearful exceptionalism, regarding the problems facing the Muslim world as stemming almost exclusively from Islam. Such rhetoric stains the reputation of a group that often prides itself on the quality of its intellectual discourse.

Many American atheists come from Christian backgrounds very few from Muslim backgrounds. In this sense, the difference between how atheists deal with Islam and Christianity is not surprising. Atheists often seem to parallel the criticisms of Islam that come from American society as a whole. While in theory atheists disbelieve all religious claims equally, criticism regarding Islam tends to focus far less on the logical impossibilities found in the faith and far more on the sensational topics that dominate the discussion of Islam for believers and non-believers alike.

This has to change. The atheist community needs to make inroads with former Muslims who go beyond the Ayan Hirsi Ali model, who use their position as former Muslims to pillory Islam while confirming every stereotype surrounding Muslims. In doing so, the atheist community can maintain its ideological commitment to the truth while also cementing its position as an equal opportunity critic.