Category Archives: News

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.


Response: What ISIS Really Wants (The Atlantic)

This post is a response to an article published this week in the Atlantic. While I am not going to give a glowing response, you will better understand the post if you understand what I’m responding to; you can find it here. Besides, pretty much everyone on my social media feed is talking about – don’t be the last one to the party.

Few groups in the world have the stomach to launch the attacks that have allowed ISIS to occupy headlines around the world for the past year. Due in no small part to such cruelty, many have been left asking “What do they want?” The press and internet have not been short on answers; the Atlantic presented their most recent offering to the debate early this week. The article, by Graeme Wood, is a thorough attempt to understand ISIS, mainly through the lens of religion. While he does not dismiss the regional factors that could play a role in ISIS’s rise – unemployment, regional identities, etc. – Wood’s main idea, which he returns to again and again, is that the group’s radical ideology is in fact deeply rooted in Islamic history, to which he employs a number of interviews with radicals of every shade.

Wood’s story takes us across the world, from Australia to New Jersey, as he searches for the answer to the question he poses in his title: “What does ISIS want?” Along the way, he interviews people from every walk of life. Sort of. While the article includes extensive quoting from Bernard Haykel, a distinguished scholar capable of insight and nuance on the topic, and one Salafi imam in Philadelphia intent on studying scripture and learning Japanese, the article relies heavily on input from ISIS and its direct supporters.

An exclusive reliance on material from radicals shades much of his analysis. Many scholars have looked at a number of underlying causes for the discord that has plagued the Middle East for much of the 20th century, including colonialism, shaky identities, and unemployment. Wood does not explicitly reject such theories but his reliance on input from a terrorist group that touts its religious credentials means that he often ends up finding justification for such beliefs.

Such thinking would not be out place when discussing the religious and cultural views of the group in isolation, but the danger here is that when Wood asks “What do they want?” he implies that such an answer could be helpful in answering a related question “Why are they doing it?” In placing religion at the center of his piece, he makes all other explanations  seem minute by comparison and implicitly supports the idea the idea that because ISIS’s rise has everything to do with religion.

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From USA Today, Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Wood also mischaracterizes a statement made by Barack Obama regarding the “Islamic” nature. Many were quick to criticize his remarks when he made them in September of 2014, but a quick look at the words in context reveal that Obama was attempting to delegitimize ISIS in the eyes of itself and its supporters, an act encouraged and undertaken by Muslims across the world:
“ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state; it was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government nor by the people it subjugates.”
While the “state” element of ISIS has been debated, Wood takes the statement that ISIS is “not Islamic” and runs with it, saying that Obama has likely miscalculated the group’s objectives and beliefs by rejecting the fact that ISIS sees itself as rooted in religion. In reality, Obama was way ahead of Wood in September: he clearly realizes there is some level of religious pull between ISIS and Muslims sympathetic to their cause in every corner of the globe. In his statement, Obama tried to reduce the power of such rhetoric while also tamping down on the “otherness” that often stains Muslims and pushes them into the hands of radical ideologues. While Wood might be correct in pointing to religious antecedents that justify ISIS’s behavior in the eyes of other terrorists, he fails to see that Obama’s statement was an attempt put distance between ISIS and those sympathetic to its message, realizing full well the pull of religiously rooted rhetoric.

Similar to many other journalistic endeavors examining jihadist theology, Wood stunningly fails to ask one sublimely simple question: why extremism and why now? For centuries, the Middle East was not a pressure cooker of extremism but a haven for scientific learning and one of the most cosmopolitan regions on Earth. Wood traces ISIS’s ideas to their roots in the days of the Muhammad and his companions but he does not ask what could have caused militant ideology now; clearly, either the tolerance of days past or today’s extremism are at odds. One of these beliefs has to be wrong, or something cataclysmic must have occurred to cause thousands of young men to abandon peace and Friends for jihad.

Notably absent from discussions on radical ideology is the fact that the Saudis have expended a great deal of their oil profits not only to promoting Islam, but promoting their extreme interpretation of it at the same time. This is one of the least discussed issues in American foreign policy and journalism; in avoiding the subject, we ignore a very real explanation for the rise of extremist Islam.

From Chechnya to sub-Saharan Africa, the House of Saud has been intent on spreading an extreme interpretation of Islam. Places in which Islam had previously coexisted peacefully with pre-Islamic practices or enjoyed a more liberal interpretation suddenly had to contend with a new interpretation, one that eschewed all but the purest of practices and reacted aggressively to those who opposed.

While the introduction of Saudi Wahhabiism does not in and of itself explain the rise of ISIS, the world would look very differently if the Saudis had spent their money building hospitals and teaching people physics. They cannot and should shoulder all of the blame for the rise of radicalism around the world – such a statement would be scapegoating – but it is no secret that the Saudis have long funded religious radicals in a number countries. Rather than asking “What do they want?”, Wood’s time would be better spent asking “Why do they want it?” The Saudis would play no small role in such an answer.

As an atheist, I am in put in the position of defending Islam far too often. I certainly do not agree with the tenets of Islam, radical or otherwise. Similarly, I do agree with Sam Harris’s points regarding violence and religion: some religions can contain more calls to violence than others and some religions that categorically reject violence cannot be said to lead to violence.

This latter point is relevant when talking about Islam, as it is when discussing Christianity. However, the overall tone of Wood’s piece takes on air of superiority, one that seems to dismiss the fact that such lines of thinking – empowering radicals and encouraging violence – could just as easily be applied to Christianity (indeed, they often have been) but that such examples have become a relatively rare sight in the modern world.

While he puts forth the standard journalistic due diligence in establishing the theological basics at the heart of ISIS’s radical ideology, that doesn’t rely explain why ISIS has become such a phenomenon now. Without such an explanation, Wood gives what ISIS proclaims to want, but forgets an important element of psychology, truth, and journalism: people often don’t know what their motivations are (on top of that, they often lie).

So by going by ISIS’s statements and those of their supporters and tracing such ideas back to Islam’s sometimes bleak past, Wood gives a picture of how ISIS sees itself and perhaps answers his title question but he doesn’t give us what might be a far more useful answer: how can we stop them and prevent this from happening again in the future? In addition, he gives far more credibility to the group than they deserve, elevating them to the spiritual guides that they claim to be. While religious ideology is certainly a major part of what drives them forward, if we see ISIS as ISIS sees itself, we may be merely further cementing their ideological basis not only in the eyes of ISIS, but in the eyes of potential supporters as well.

Iran, Houthis and the US Response in Yemen

Across the Middle East, we are told of an epic story, of two diametrically opposed camps locked in a struggle that plays out on a variety of fronts. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain, the West and its allies in the region – most notably the Gulf monarchies – claim to be engaged in zero-sum battle with Iran. Such claims are used by Gulf monarchies to encourage further involvement in Syria’s civil war while encouraging Western powers to look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses in Bahrain. While such rhetoric is strong and finds a receptive audience in a number of policy circles, it is comforting to see that the reality is far more nuanced and presents more possibilities than such a reading would otherwise portend.

Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic has made a name for itself on a number of foreign fronts. Iran’s bellicose anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric scored the new government serious points with powers identifying themselves in opposition to the West. Iran also became something of a singularity as it was the only state with a sizable Shia population that sought to make Islam a central tenet of its government. These two facts positioned Iran as a major player in the region with regards to foreign policy, uniquely situated to both challenge the West and give voice to the region’s millions of heretofore voiceless Shia inhabitants. These two goals, however, are not always in harmony with each other and thus Iran has had to carefully balance these two often competing priorities.

Iran’s anti-Western credentials are embodied in its foreign policy, especially its support for a number of organizations deemed terrorist groups in the West. The Islamic Republic has loudly championed the Palestinian cause for years and has made supporting the more militant elements of the PLO an important element of its strategy. This has raised the credibility of Iran in the eyes of many in the region, where support for the Palestinian cause cuts across ethnic and religious affiliations. Iran’s support for the Shia militia and political movement Hezbollah has also allowed the Islamic Republic to score major points due to the group’s tough stance against Israel. In doing so, Iran has been able to support a variety of causes that have allowed Iran to play up its anti-Western credentials to its Arab neighbors.

However, the Islamic Republic has not shied away from sectarian politics on all fronts. Iran has also remained a major backer of Bashar al-Assad. While the reasons for such support could be innumerable, it is clear to many in the region that Assad and the Iranian state share a key demographic feature- Shia Islam. While such facts do not go unnoticed in the Middle East, it does help the Assad is viewed as one of the most vocal opponents of Israel and heads a capable army that sits right on the Jewish state’s doorstep. While Iran is certainly not afraid of helping fellow Shia, it cannot rely solely on support from Shia to pursue its policies; they make up a distinct minority in the region and are not always looked on favorably by conservative Sunni. As such, the Islamic Republic does not rely on Shia alone for support and minimizes such appearances when it extends its influence beyond states with substantial Shia populations – Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon.

As the war in Syria drags on into a bloody stalemate with little reason to expect a change in the balance of power any time soon (Obama has made such a position abundantly clear), the next front in the fight over Iranian influence is Yemen. Like Syria, Yemen presents a bit of a conundrum: In Syria, a Shia dictatorship is fighting a fractured Sunni opposition, with substantial infighting and elements of extremism within the opposition. In Yemen, a country racked with regional turmoil and a powerful secessionist movement, Shia rebels demanded concessions from a government locked in a battle with one of al-Qaeda’s deadliest branches.

In each situation, Western countries face a number of choices that seem to either empower Iran or hand over substantial power and weapons to extremist groups that would likely turn their guns on the West if victory were ever achieved. Such worries are not ill-founded but can lead to paralyzing fear and ultimately a failure to act, which would represent a true failure of policy on the part of Western nations.

Yemen has been a reliable partner in the US’s efforts to eliminate al-Qaeda fighters (and suspected fighters) via a campaign of drone strikes and given the antagonism rooted in ideology between the Houthis and al-Qaeda, such a relationship is not likely to change. The US has reportedly been in contact with the Houthi rebels and appears to have made the decision that cooperation with the Houthis serves US interests at this time. While assessing the efficacy of the US’s drone strike program is itself a complex discussion worthy of its own book, such a decision shows that the US has at least been able to prioritize threats in Iran and act on such calculations. Although Iran may have scored a victory when the Houthis overtook Sanaa, such gains are not concrete given Yemen’s tenuous political and security climate. Similarly, the US is not bound to its existing policy should the balance of threats change. However, al-Qaeda has executed a number of stunningly successful attacks and threatened or attempted even more. As al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is one of the group’s deadliest branches, they represent a clear and present threat in a way that an Iranian proxy militia does not.

An overlapping of interests between Iran and the West does not mean that the latter has caved to Iranian interests, nor does it signal a significant change in relations between the two parties. The threats posed by rampant terrorist groups in Syria and Yemen pose obvious dangers in the immediate future that the US and other Western powers cannot ignore; reducing their capabilities – even if such a group is fighting an Iranian ally – should remain a priority for every western official that seeks to save lives that could be lost in terrorist attacks. As the threat from terrorism decreases, outside powers can refocus their efforts on diminishing Iran’s influence; to do so beforehand would embolden terrorists in an effort to check the rise of an unfriendly power. Iran has proven willing to work with the West in the past – Afghanistan being a notable example – with little change in the overall relationship between the two countries.

Additionally, while Iran has certainly backed the Houthis thus far, a victory for a proxy does not necessarily translate into long term strategic victory. The US learned this lesson the hard way by intervening in the Afghan Wars of the 1980s. While the ideological and sectarian ties between Iran and its various regional proxies undoubtedly create more resilient bonds, they are not set in stone and a careful reading of the individual groups’ concerns could reveal points of concern that could be exploited by a careful power. And should the Houthis struggle for control become more drawn out than previously expected, Iran will be forced to ask whether it can continue to carry the costs of funding two regional proxies as the price of oil continues to slide. Such a decision could again lead to an opening that could cleave the Houthis away from Iranian influence bring them to the negotiating table.

Politics is the art of the possible and the US has been presented with two options – preventing the spread of growing terrorist groups and placing limits on a rising anti-Western power. Of these, the former is not only possible, but commands our attention, while the latter can only come at the expense of the first. The possibility of being ‘co-belligerents; with Iran has proven possible over and over again. Such actions, however, do not mean trust. The US cannot and will not trust a power that so actively campaigns against it – to do so would be so naïve as to border on insanity. However, the US cannot afford to let the fear of an Iranian victory choke off the possibility of action on a life or death issue.

Tunisia’s Democratic Transition and Essid’s New Cabinet

On Monday February 2, Tunisia’s new Prime Minister Habib Essid proposed a new cabinet that includes greater representation of other parties within his coalition, among them Islamist Ennahdha, Slim Riahi’s Free Patriotic Union (UPL) and Afek Tounes. This follows events last week, when a previously proposed cabinet met resistance for its unrepresentative nature. This most recent announcement followed deliberations and rumors over the weekend that seemed to indicate some reticence on the part of Essid’s party, Nida Tounes, about whether including Ennahdha was a viable option. The fact that the avowedly anti-Islamist Nida Tounes has decided to include Islamist party Ennahdha in their coalition reveals a number important points that bode well for Tunisia’s democratic institutions but indicate that true policy successes might be more difficult to come by in the near future.

First, both Ennahdha and Nida Tounes are pragmatic and opportunistic parties. Though each has legitimate reservations about the other – not to mention ideological differences – they have expressed a willingness to enter into an alliance. Nida Tounes is headed by Beji Caid Essebsi, who served for a period under deposed President Ben Ali. Under Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, Ennahdha was fiercely persecuted; it would be understandable for Ennahdha members, among them party leader Rached Ghanoouchi, to feel lingering distrust and resentment. For Nida Tounes, the party gained much of its support campaigning in opposition to Ennahdha, portraying itself as the most viable secular party. The fact that the two parties were able to put aside these feelings bodes well for a future peaceful transfer of power, as each has been able to put aside mutual suspicions and dislike for the sake of governing. This could also serve to calm some of the incendiary rhetoric that characterized the debate between the two parties over the last several years, but such a development could easily be undone once campaigning begins again.

Second, the decision to include Ennahdha in the coalition did not come easily for Nida Tounes. This is not surprising given the party’s seemingly amorphous political stance that seems most united when discussing their common enemy – political Islam. However, the fact that deliberations on such a key issue seemed to take on a divisive character within the party suggests that splits are very possible within Nida Tounes’ ranks, though not necessarily in the short term. If true, this would replicate a phenomenon seen when former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned and ultimately left Ennahdha due to conflicts within the party. While Ennahdha survived the very public split, it both portended and encouraged the difficulties the party would face in the most recent elections; although Ennahdha is the second largest party in the current parliament, it does not have the commanding lead over other parties that it enjoyed in 2011. Unlike Ennahdha, Nida Tounes is a young party whose most unifying factors are Essebsi’s experience and persona and the party’s opposition to Islamist politics. If a split occurs within Nida Tounes early on, it could spell distaster for the party down the road.

Third, coalitions within Tunisia will likely continue to feature the biggest winners in the elections regardless of the ideological differences between the two parties. After the NCA elections in 2011 and the most recent elections, the winning coalition  featured the largest parties irrespective of political affiliation. In 2011, this included Ennahdha, former President Marzouki’s CPR party, and Dr. Mostapha ben Jaafer’s Ettakatol. We are the seeing the same the pattern repeat itself here. In 2011, this was ostensibly to write a new constitution that better represented the will of the Tunisian people. In 2015, such a decision makes sense only under the banner of assembling a winning coalition. While the decision by Nida Tounes to include Ennahdha does show tolerance and a willingness to work across the aisle, it also suggests a fear among Tunisian politicians of taking serious chances politically or assembling more partisan coalitions. Tunisia’s opposition will lack a strong party while the two largest parties form a consensus based around PM Essid’s cabinet. Without a political party that is willing and able to take risks politically, Tunisia cannot hope to tackle the very necessary – and potentially unpopular – reforms that it must take in the coming months, including reassessing its public subsidies. And without a major party in the opposition, Tunisians will be left without a strong voice to counterbalance Essid’s new government.

The new coalition between secular Nida Tounes and Islamist Ennahdha brings promise and peril. On the one hand, the willingness of parties to share power regardless of ideological differences bodes well for future transitions and Tunisia’s overall democratic development. On the other hand, such a contentious alliance could split the winning party, potentially ruining its chances of implementing its vision. And while parties sharing power is good for democratic institutions, it doesn’t necessarily produce the best policy decisions. Without a party that can garner popular support through gutsy and articulated plans, Tunisia’s democratic transition might generate strong institutions at the expense of strong policy.