Tag Archives: Syria

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.