WAR WITH ISIS: So far, Bashar Al-Assad Looks Like the Winner

I was beginning to think of President Obama’s vision of a large coalition of countries to fight ISIS as the Coalition of the Loitering, but more and more nations have stepped up and made public commitments of one form or another.   For example, the British parliament is about to vote as to  their commitment and my guess is it will pass.

Perhaps most significant was the involvement of five predominantly Sunni Arab states in bombing raids against ISIS in recent days, significant because ISIS is composed of radical Sunnis and, given the general schism between Shia and Sunni in the region, it is noteworthy when members of either sect publicly go against “their own”, so to speak.    The fact that nobody thinks of ISIS as their own opens up a new dynamic.

English: Brasilia - The president of the Syria...

English: Brasilia – The president of the Syrian Arab Republic, Bashar Al-Assad(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I agree with commentators who remind us that the United States is likely more committed to destroying ISIS than are our Mid-East Arab allies, who have a tendency of playing both ends against the middle guided by their own priorities not ours.

Once ISIS is degraded significantly and fear of them is reduced, who knows which Arab nations will still be there for the long haul?

For example, Saudi Arabia has a large military, but this has been developed primarily out of the fear of possible conflicts with Iran and now a Shia dominated Iraq.   They want to save their ground troops if needed against Shia.

That is an underlying  fear that may take precedent again once ISIS is weakened.   On the other hand, the Iraqi Shias probably wouldn’t welcome Sunni Saudi Arabian troops on their soil, even if there to fight ISIS.  This is but one small example of the gargantuan complexity of this situation.

And in thinking about this complexity, I think of Bashar Al-Assad, who remains dictator of a good chunk of Syria and how he seems to be benefiting from all of this.    I am generally sympathetic to President Obama when it comes to foreign policy as I believe he inherited an unraveling international order, especially in the Greater Middle East (*1).   Other presidents have faced huge problems, but the path forward for each seemed clearer than the various dilemmas  Obama is facing.

Having said that, I think  Obama’s biggest foreign policy mistake was when he insisted that Bashar Al-Assad had to go early in the Syrian civil war.    In doing so he miscalculated the international support for that to happen, while also underestimating  Russia’s (Putin’s) determination  for it not to happen.

Also, in trying to gather international support and sounding so adamant about the removal of Assad, he encouraged rebels to believe they would get more support than they did.  In short, though I don’t feel happy about saying this, the world may have been better off allowing Assad to brutally put down the resistance as his ancestors had so successfully done.   Far fewer would have died or been displaced.

The more I think about the Middle East, the more it seems that the choice is usually between dictators who govern brutally and lands that become ungovernable.   I will write more about that in a future post.

Of course, that goes against both our humanitarian and democratic values and Obama was likely pumped up by the success of toppling Ghadafi in Algeria months before, but I think there is no question he overreached and in the process set up the present dilemma in finding an end game to wipe out ISIS.  By painting Assad as evil incarnate, he made it impossible to deal with him as a political partner, even against a force even more evil.

Right now as ISIS in Syria is weakened by our bombings, Assad’s hand becomes stronger.   While he might complain about a lack of coordination of American air strikes, his air defenses do nothing to prevent them.  The more we degrade ISIS the better for him.  As I type, I imagine him doing a happy dance.

Also, the belated dubious plan to train 5,000 Syrian moderates includes the notion that once trained in Saudi Arabia they will return somewhere in Syria to fight ISIS, more good news for Assad, assuming it works that way.  Critics of the plan suggest those fighters are more likely to turn their guns back on Assad, their primary enemy, but who knows?    Also, these well trained fighters will not return for maybe 18 months or so, and by then who knows what strength their counterparts remaining in Syria will still have?  Will they even have a place to come back to?

All of this suggests to me that if we really want to crush ISIS in the end, we will have to make some sort of deal with Assad.   Most commentators assert that this situation cannot be decided militarily alone.  It requires a political solution.   At this point, I see no political solution in Syria that does not include Assad.   And no end to ISIS without one.

I know it is a tough pill to swallow Mr. President, but think about it.  It may boil down to a choice between the lesser of two evils.


(*1)   The Greater Middle East is a term concocted during the G. W. Bush presidency to cover an expansive region stretching roughly from Morocco to Pakistan, which at times seems more useful in discussing upheaval in the Muslim world than the traditional notion of the Middle East stretching from Egypt to Iran.   Wikipedia offers more details and a map.

ISIS vs. the World: “The Enemy of my Enemy is My Friend”

The Middle East has developed more hot spots than asphalt on a scorching summer day and I continue to sort through articles in search of an understanding of the underlying dynamics at work.  The most illuminating short piece I have found is by Adam  Taylor in the Washington Post from August 22.   There he nicely summarizes what seems an almost surreal situation in which former enemies seem close to becoming strange bed fellows out of the common desire to crush ISIS.

Flag of islamic state of iraq

Flag of islamic state of iraq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It reminds me of the ancient proverb about friendly enemies quoted in the title of this post.  Or as Taylor describes the current situation:  “One remarkable result of the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has been how it seems to be shifting broader conceptions in the Middle East. It sometimes looks like enemies are becoming potential allies – and even old friends are starting to look a little suspicious.”

While I suggest you read the article, here is a thumbnail sketch of its content along with a bit of me inserted here and there.

In order to stop ISIS it seems necessary to root them out of Syria as well as Iraq and that means some sort of working relationship with the Assad government, that same government President Obama has railed against for many months now.  Awkward.

On the other hand, recall that the U. S. did cooperate with Syria and Russia in the removal of chemical weapons there which meant the U. S. was actually shoring up the regime in a defacto way at least for the months it took to complete that deal.  This at the expense of the Free Syrian Army and other so-called moderate anti-government forces.  How is this so different than that?

Cooperation with Iran seems likely, too.   Maybe more likely.  I know, also awkward, but Iran  is the major supporter of the Iraqi Shia who must be counted on to fight ISIS, since we don’t want to put our own boots on the ground (well, not more than a thousand or…?).   Prime Minister David Cameron, for one,  has suggested talks with Iran and other Mid-East nations to develop  cooperation to fight ISIS.

While at least some cooperation with the likes of  Assad’s government and Iran seems in the cards, there is also reassessments being made of  our allies-for-the-most-part like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.   These countries (or at least wealthy citizens in them) have been the chief donors to ISIS in its battle vs. Assad.   Now that ISIS has spread like a wildfire, these donors may have had a change of heart, though I can’t gauge that and Taylor doesn’t try.

However, he does give  a good example of how the success of ISIS has made some former backers cringe. Turkey is an enemy of the Assad regime and “had shown a remarkable tolerance for Islamic State fighters until very recently, allowing fighters to use Turkish towns as way stations for arms and supplies. Turkey is now working with the United States and European governments to crack down on Islamist fighters.”

Clear as mud?  Well, read the Taylor article and I think it will be a bit clearer.



When the World Gets You Down, Perhaps a Visit from the Dalai Lama Will Perk You Up.

Over two weeks have passed since my previous post.    Seldom am I this slow to return.  It’s not that I haven’t tried.   For example, I spent a few hours working on a piece on immigration reform before I reached the conclusion:  Who cares?  It’s not going to happen anytime soon. In fact, nothing much is going to happen anytime soon in Congress, not until after the mid-term elections in the fall.  And after that who knows?

How to See Yourself As You Really Are

How to See Yourself As You Really Are (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I suffer from  cognitive dissonance between what I sense as reality and what is happening politically.   The reality is we have ever growing problems as a nation while the politics is mostly theatrical posturing, with both parties spinning everything to suit the narrative they want to firmly implant in us by the mid-term elections in the fall.

And, since it seems a given according to the pundits that the House will safely remain in Republican hands, it is all about which side will win the Senate this time around.

But what does this have to do with anything in the real world?   If the Democrats hold the Senate, how will that change anything for the good.  And if the Republicans take the Senate what can that produce beyond more gridlock and even more investigations of the White House through Senate committees with the same inquisitorial zeal of Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Issa begins his fact finding missions by declaring something to be scandalous and then tirelessly going about trying to prove his accusations, not interested in information to the contrary.  I haven’t seen him “prove” much of anything, but with all his posturing, he captures a lot of theatrical time propping up the Republican narrative that the Obama administration is both incompetent and untrustworthy.

With so little real going on in national politics, pundits like to concentrate on the 2016 presidential elections, otherwise known as the coronation of Hillary.  I have much respect for Ms. Clinton, but what can any president achieve in today’s deeply divided political atmosphere while facing  a world made mind-boggling complex through economic  globalization tied to instant connectivity to almost everywhere?   It seemed so much more simple in the good old days when our foreign policy was  shaped by the struggle between the evil empire and our white hat wearing selves.

Given a burgeoning chaos in the Greater Middle East and tensions between China and other nations in the Far East who can say what this world will look like in 2016?   International crises seem to be simmering to a boil all over the place.  The Ukraine, Syria, Iran, North Korea come first to mind, and those threats should prompt us to come together, but instead act as  more grist for political theater.    In terms of unity, the best our government  can do is keep the doors open for business by passing a budget for a change and not precipitate untold economic harm  by a refusal to raise the debt ceiling, which would have left  the world’s “full faith” in our stability further diminished.

You might be asking at this point:  Where does the Dalai Lama fit into this?   Well, given what I have written, you can see why I would love to get a fresh perspective on the world’s problems.  To my surprise, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a generally respected conservative think tank (in contrast to Heritage Foundation) apparently has felt a need to get a fresh approach, too, as they recently “hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama for two remarkable conversations about human happiness, economics, and the moral core of free enterprise.”

I could use a boost from a remarkable conversation.   Care to join me at this link?

The Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons: A Real News Topic

These days a rediculous amount of time is being spent by news media covering the struggling roll out of Obamacare, or officially the Affordable Care Act (in case an on-the-street  interviewer tries to trick you with the question:  Which health plan do you prefer?  ….as you are walking along contemplating what to have for dinner).

WTVD News Vehicle

WTVD News Vehicle (Photo credit: Donald Lee Pardue)

The perils of Obamacare are so talked about by the mainstream media that it is hard to resist saying something myself, but I will restrict it to this:  It is an important issue, but let’s wait awhile longer to see how things sort out.

Whatever mishmash is happening now is not real news, unlike the typhoon in the Philippines.   O. K. there is a little news there, but it is mostly filler like in many processed foods.   It is filled by the primary commitment of both parties to make the other party look bad and newscasters, especially the cable kind, who need to have something to talk about that they can make seem important enough for us to listen.   Those relatively few of us who actually do listen to any of them.

It is not news they report but steps forward in a narrative with a minor climax being the 2014 congressional elections and then the major climax being the 2016 presidential one.   These news junkies wish us to become addicted to politics as if we had money on a horserace (Chuck Todd and Chris Matthews of MSNBC come to mind in particular).

Here’s my prediction:  Within three days after the 2016  election, no matter who wins, Chuck and Chris et al will be speculating on the 2020 presidential election, and so it will go.   Doesn’t it seem a little crazy, all this attention upon who will win political races, when there seems such a disparity between winning elections and creating a government that works? (*1)

Oh….  Syria?  Remember how important it was a couple of months ago, what with the chemical weapons they have and the surprising deal to dismantle them?   (check out this post for a refresher).  I for one have been curious as to how that has been going, so I did a little Googling and was going to give you an update today, but figure this post is long enough as it is.  (I’ve noticed my posts have gotten longer of late).

So, I employ the popular news hook:

Is the Syrian chemical weapons deal about to explode?  Tune in to news at 11:00?

Er I mean, read my next post in a couple of days (or you could do some Google searching yourself if you’re impatient.)


(*1) “Works” here is meant in two ways, working together and just plain working.   Check out the House calendar  (scroll to bottom) for this month and next.  It shows a combined number of days in session as 16 over the two months.   Rachel Maddow of MSNBC has raised that issue on her show, but if some reporter has directly asked Speaker Boehner (R.) to explain that lowly figure, I have missed it.

The Syrian Dilemma: Congress Debates the Best Worst Option

As indicated in my previous post, I expected American missiles to have smashed parts of Syria by now,  but the President wisely back peddled and drew Congress into the mix.   The idea light might have popped on when the British Parliament voted against British involvement.  Given their traditional staunchest ally role, if we can’t even get them to back us……?

English: Middle East

English: Middle East (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Or perhaps it was the poll suggesting only  28% of us or so think his proposed action seems a good idea.

Or maybe Obama recalled his rhetoric before his first election which was spiced with talk of government transparency, which hasn’t been the case, and of opening debate in Congress to our use of force in the world, which has not been the case, either.

Our nation has carried on an essentially hidden war using drones against terrorists in lightly populated, primitive areas around the world,  so it gets little attention.   It seems to be working and most of us are happy to watch so-called reality TV than focus on unpleasant realities like drones killing mostly bad guys with some unfortunate not guilty ones collateralized,  just happy to hope the government is doing it in the right way, an usual trusting of our government.

Anyway, if you think about this, it is nice to see a President come to Congress and actually ask their permission to attack someone.   Congress are the ones supposedly in the position to declare war, but administrations since WW II have worked around them by claiming presidential power for military engagements deemed necessary to national defense.

The skeptics will all criticize Obama for not being clear enough about our objectives,   Allow me to help.  Our general objective is to somehow remove Assad without having forces even more dangerous to us and the region take control of the government.  So, we will use this “red line” as an excuse to degrade his forces, but not topple him too quickly.   We fear chaos more than him.  Instead, we will continue to try to slowly weaken him and bolster elements of the rebels that seem less dangerous than he is and the other rebels vying for control.

As to exactly how this will play out, nobody has a clue.

From what I have heard so far, Congressional leaders seem united in backing some form of retaliation, so the question is whether enough “followers” will fall into line.  My guess is they will.  American prestige is on the line.  Obama has put it there with statements about the “red line” and that Assad must go.  I am an Obama fan, but I agree with conservative columnist George Will when he writes:

If a fourth military intervention (in the Muslim world) is coming, it will not be to decisively alter events, which we cannot do, in a nation vital to U.S. interests, which Syria is not. Rather, its purpose will be to rescue Obama from his words.

But I would defend the president in this way.   Unlike Russia, America has a set of democratic values that come into play in our foreign policy.   I would say they have usually taken a back seat to our desire for regional stability, especially in the oil rich Middle East, but the tension exists and has become accentuated since the launching of what was called the Arab spring, but now seems more like a burgeoning Muslim chaos.

The point is the era of despots has been collapsing in the Middle East and democracy isn’t a cure all for poverty and lack of  justice, especially when democracy is more a vision than something that has been practiced before the revolution, practiced for years as was the case with us.   In short, there is no quick and easy transition from despotism to democracy, but don’t expect the needed patience from people throughout the Middle East who, having discarded despots, conceive of freedom as suddenly promoting a better life.

We are all still getting accustomed to an Arab spring that has given way to more chaos than democracy and there are no simple answers to this dilemma.

Syria: “The Problem from Hell”


Syria (Photo credit: ewixx)

I do not want to write about Syria because I have no special insights into the situation, but then again, I don’t know who does.   It is the proverbial elephant in the room, but like that old story of several blind men touching different parts of an elephant, it seems different depending on what part you touch.

Our military  will soon send missiles to do a surgical strike in response to what our government asserts was a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government on its people.   John McCain asserts they already used chemical weapons, but that assertion is in some doubt.   This time is doubtless according to the Obama administration and crosses the “red line” that he warned the Syrian regime not to cross tens of thousands of deaths ago.

Whatever.  We’ll soon launch limited missile attacks which, well, will do what?  The argument is they will be punishment for crossing that “red line” of chemical weapons, argued since WWI to be the definitive line that separates reasonable war from monstrosities,   It seems the indiscriminate nature of chemical weapons is the key and the image of dying from slow asphyxiation cements the difference, though it seems a fine line between that and dying in a bomb produced falling building.   In any event, we Americans can luxuriate in discriminate killing because we have such sophisticated weapons that our missiles can hit not just a building but a specific window in that building.

Anyway, how is this to play out? is the BIG QUESTION.   The administration doesn’t want to topple Assad, at least not quite yet, because chaos may well harbor bigger threats that could prevail…. a large share of the freedom fighters have a Muslim extremist sense of “freedom”.    So, I guess we want to slap Assad’s hand hard enough so as not to cross that red line again, and otherwise watch the slaughter games continue while sending support to whatever elements we think of as the “good guys” or the better-than-worse guys.

And what I have said just scratches the surface.  Hell goes deep.  For those who want to explore the in-and-outs of this confusion, I suggest going to this link titled Why China and Russia are Standing by the Regime.   While describing their positions, the article links to various other articles about the situation, including the  historical use of chemical weapons, so it provides a good primer for those who want to learn more about the intricacies of this particular hell.

Somewhere there is a quote from a Russian describing our foreign policy regarding the volatile Muslim world:   “The Americans handle the Muslim world like a monkey handling a hand grenade.”  

Made me smile……   but the Russian tendency to support despotism under any circumstances is no answer either in this age of Middle East revolutions, reactions to decades and decades of repression and happening now compliments of hand held world interconnectivity and one more reason this problem is beyond the capacity of any nation to control or perhaps even guide.

Gone Fishin’ in Egypt

Topographic map of Egypt. Created with GMT fro...

Topographic map of Egypt. Created with GMT from SRTM data. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naw, I’m actually right here in San Diego at a lap top writing to say I’m not going to write much.   I had an operation a week ago and recovery has preoccupied me since then.  I am actually feeling quite well now, but I find writing something worthwhile to read today to be a chore too big to tackle.  I’ve tried, but haven’t like what I came up with.

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking more about the Muslim controlled Mideast than our national political theater, but find it all beyond comprehension other than Syria is a forest fire that could burn out of control igniting other fires in the region and Egypt has become another wild card again.

Not that I’m sorry to see Prime MinisterMorsi (Morsy) and his Muslim Brotherhood ideology go, relieved a bit actually, but who knows whether the military will have the wisdom to guide the country to a stable form of democracy, especially as the country’s problems are huge and the people impatient.

The unique advantages of our own  revolution compared to those that followed us is not pointed out often enough.   We were not a land populated by many poor people who expected a new government to raise them out of poverty.  So, there was not the same pressure for the government to change lives as has been the case in every revolution since then, to my knowledge.  We also had training wheels in self-government, a legacy of England.  It was second nature to us.  The concepts and proceses of a Republic had been developed over hundreds of years in England.   Except for the final act of making the king just a titular head of government.   That would come late there.

Those are the foremost reasons it is so hard to get a new democracy up and running.  It is nearly impossible to satisfy the people soon enough, especially when creating democratic processes at the same time.  I just hope the Egyptians some how find a way to beat the odds.