A Few Thoughts on Syria

(WE INTERRUPT OUR REGULAR PROGRAMMING OF THE DONALD TRUMP SHOW FOR A FEW THOUGHTS ON SOMETHING ELSE)

Although I have written mostly about the rise of Trumpenstein of late, I have been keeping track of what has been happening in the Middle East, especially Syria and Iran.   Not so much that I don’t feel painfully ignorant about it all, but enough to express a few thoughts that you can judge how you will.  I’ll  limit myself to Syria today.

But first a word about Trump (one of several reasons I gravitate towards his rise is that he seems such a reflection of us, something I hope to understand some day).   The word is the results of today’s primaries could decide whether Trump’s nomination will look inevitable or whether the anti-Trump Republicans can still hope to stage a fight at the convention in July.  The hope that Trump will not grab the 1237 votes necessary by then.

If Trump wins in Ohio today, divine intervention would seem required to stop him.  If Governor Kasich can beat him in his home state, let the games go on.  More about all that in a couple of days.

Now for Syria.  About two weeks ago a cease fire was signed by Russia and the U. S. and other major powers concerned with  the devastation and to most people’s surprise it has held up pretty well.  Of course it did not include ISIS and it has been uneven, but humanitarian aid has reached various places in desperate need and there has been markedly  less fighting overall.

Peace talks have resumed in Geneva and Russia has surprised by announcing it will be pulling out most of its forces in Syria, which seems a hopeful sign, though one American correspondent has described it as getting out before things get really messy there.

It is hard to imagine what kind of agreement can be worked out in Geneva because “our side” insists President Assad must go, while Russia has backed his staying in power.  Russian intervention has shored up Assad’s position in recent months, with the apparent goal of keeping his position strong at any bargaining table.

However, this exodus of forces makes me wonder just what Vladimir has in mind now.   I won’t even try to guess.

At least there is a glimmer of hope for peace in contrast with the assumption of endless slaughter that now prevails.

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The Siege of Aleppo: From Chronic Crisis to Catastrophe?

The presidential primary results in New Hampshire Tuesday did nothing to diminish interest in the ongoing races in both parties.  This would seem a positive sign about our democracy were it not for the fact most of us are more TV consumers intrigued by a new version of “the great race” than active citizens.  Trump and Sanders being big winners in New Hampshire, unthinkable last June, give legs to this “reality” TV series.  It should entertain us for months to come.

Oh, by the way, while the cable TV stations spend most of their time examining what has happened so far in the great race and speculating on what is to come, a catastrophe seems imminent in Syria.  The word “crisis” is so overused these days I needed to search for a more powerful word, especially as Syria has been in a state of chronic crisis for years.  When crisis is the norm it ceases to feel like a crisis, unless you are living in its hellish circumstances rather than watching it on TV as we so often are.

Here’s a rough approximation of what is going on and why it is so bad and why it could get much worse.

Since the Russians began to directly intervene in Syria in September, under the guise of joining the fight against ISIS, they have spent most of their efforts attacking the conglomeration of more moderate rebels that we have more or less backed.   They hide that fact in their propaganda accusing all rebels fighting the government of being terrorists, including the ones we tend to like.  With the help of largely state controlled media, they hide it well enough most Russians seem to believe they are primarily fighting ISIS, and it receives support because it is sold as a religious war.

Our response to Russian forays has been to avoid clashing with them in joint fly zones and to put our hopes in peace talks among various concerned countries to reach an agreement, but these talks have produced nothing, while allowing Bashar al-Assad’s Russian and Iranian backed forces to regain ground lost earlier.  Russian intervention came when it appeared Assad was losing the fight.

Recently Assad’s forces and Russia planes have launched an attack on Aleppo, a rebel stronghold in northern Syria forcing 40,000 or so refugees to flee towards Turkey, but Turkey won’t accept them.   In recent bombings in the city some 500 people have been killed and many others are dying of starvation both in Aleppo and in other areas attacked by Assad.

Because of these events talks have reconvened in Munich today in search of a cease fire, but chances don’t look good.  For one thing Russia denies recent bombings of hospitals in Aleppo, accusing us of doing so.  And while we want an immediate cease fire they talk of a cease fire beginning March 1, which would give them more time to slaughter the opposition and strengthen their bargaining position.

In short, if the talks fail (and that seems likely), the situation borders on the uncontrollable and we are caught in a position of either confronting Russia in the form of a no fly protection zone, or losing further credibility in the area.   The Turks, the Saudi’s, France and various other nations are pushing us to do more, and that “more” seems to be a no fly zone.  A pair of scholars have written a piece calling our failure to set up that no fly zone “moral bankruptcy.”

Of course, Russia has indicated it opposes that.  After all its planes are using that area to bomb “our” rebels.   The situation seems to be heading towards either a military confrontation of some sort between ourselves and Russia or a further loss of our credibility as a military power if we essentially do little or nothing.

This is the big story of today, but it only is receiving slight mention on the cable TV stations, focused as they are on the great race.

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P. S. –     If you want the latest news on Aleppo and the peace talks, google Syrian Peace Meeting In Munich Thursday or simply Aleppo, or both.  They offer somewhat different sources.

 

 

Peace in Syria: Can we get there from here?

The recent ISIS attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian plane by Turkey add new corridors to the labyrinth that we are lost in when it comes to peace in Syria.  But while these changes add complexity to the ongoing enigma, the way forward remains the same.

We must reach a diplomatic solution among the various factions in Syria which then would allow them and foreign powers like ourselves and Russia to focus our full attention on destroying ISIS instead of splitting our efforts trying to destroy each other.

If that were the case, the long unanswered question of:  Where are more boots on the ground to come from?    Would likely be answered:  From a lot of places.

At present they seem unlikely to come from anywhere, besides the Kurds, who can only do so much, and the Shia militias in Iraq who, while willing to fight ISIS,  are further alienating the Sunni’s in western Iraq in the process.   Ah, the Sunni-Shia divide.  A clue.

Also, my sense of the Kurds is they are  less enthusiastic to shed blood in Syria than in Iraq, their homeland, so while some are fighting in northeastern Syria, don’t expect the Kurds to supply all the boots on the ground necessary, even if aided by a few thousand  U. S. troops.

The Kurds, like every other nation, have their own agenda which only partially converges with our own.   Our top priority is to destroy ISIS, their top priority is to establish a Kurdish state free from Bagdad control, a goal we are likely helping them attain with our growing arms shipments.

The problem of finding peace among the Syrian factions as well as finding troops willing to fight ISIS goes back to the same issue, the fundamental Shia-Sunni Muslim antagonism that goes back centuries.   While Iran and Iraq have majority Shia populations, the rest of the Middle East is Sunni dominated.

Syria is an oddity in that the Assad government is backed by a minority of Syrians who are Shia in the sense they are an offshoot of that sect.   A large majority of Syrians are Sunni.

What has mushroomed into the Syrian civil war is, in a general sense, a proxy fight between Sunni and Shia Middle East nations.   The key point in all of this is that while our top priority is to destroy ISIS, the top priority of the Sunni nations in the region is to defend against and weaken Iran, including its influence in Syria and Iraq.

As such, Sunni nations like Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have shown no willingness to put together a Sunni ground force to fight ISIS.  Besides having other pressing agendas to deal with (Saudi Arabia with Yemen and Egypt with terrorists at home), these nations are more concerned with ridding Syria of Assad than in fighting ISIS.  In fact, ISIS was initially funded by the wealthy in these nations as a Sunni answer to Assad’s dominance and probably still gets some support from them.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has suggested that the “right” boots on the ground should come from Sunni nations, which makes sense since ISIS has Sunni roots, so it would be Sunnis cleaning up their own mess so to speak and would avoid inflaming tensions both between the Shia and Sunnis and those between the West and the Middle East.

But from what I have read, there seems no likelihood that such a force could be formed until some sort of deal is worked out in Syria in which Assad gives up power and a process to include Syrian Sunnis in the government is developed.   As long as Sunni ISIS counterbalances the power of Assad, the Sunni states cannot be counted on for much support (even their air campaigns have fizzled to nothing ).

So, you got all that?     If you have trouble imagining a diplomatic solution coming to pass, like I do, its happening anytime soon received a setback when the Turks shot down that Russian plane.    The Turks want Assad gone, while Putin remains his loyal ally.

It seems the Turks thought that plane was heading to bomb anti-Assad forces it supports, while Russian media portrays it as an act of Turkey helping ISIS, when most likely the Turks are right since Russian media has pushed the narrative that Russia is fighting a holy war vs. ISIS, despite most of their attacks being aimed at Syrians Turkey and we support.

Of course, since that bomb blew up the Russian plane, Russia probably is bearing down on ISIS more now.   I haven’t checked.

The labyrinth grows while the enigma remains.

 

 

 

Obama’s Syria Strategy: Is a Wait and See Approach Enough?

Barring the unforeseen, I think Barack Obama’s Syrian foreign policy will go down as the worst part of his presidency.   His chief mistake was to talk big while producing small actions during that nation’s decent into hell over the past four years.  The biggest mistake of all was to insist that Assad must go without accurately assessing his staying power with the aid of Russia and Iran.

Perhaps heady from deposing Kaddafi in Libya, Obama miscalculated the will of the international community to force Assad’s leaving and was too ambivalent about our own role to provide much leadership.  At the time Putin and the leaders of China seemed to feel they were being played in Libya, that they never endorsed a regime change, but only a protective no fly zone.    They did not want a repeat of that and vetoed UN efforts to put some sanctions on the Assad regime.

Assad has gone nowhere and now with Russia’s increased backing (along with Iran’s), he seems even more likely to stick around, at least as long as Vladimir Putin finds him useful.   Putin’s incursion into Syria has put Obama in an awkward situation, fertile ground for more ambivalence to blossom.   We have conveniently ignored international law in our supportive efforts to rebels we more or less like in Syria in that our aid has usually been given covertly via our CIA.

Not that it is a big secret, but when you support some group with the CIA it is not something you want to hold up for attention  as they don’t adhere closely to international norms.   Meanwhile, Putin can make himself look like the protector of these norms by backing the established government in Syria.   Whatever we might think of Assad, his is the established government.

So, we have Putin’s planes and missiles bombing the “terrorists” in Syria but he makes no distinction between the rebels we like and ISIS whom we despise.    Actually, one can infer a distinction.  That the terrorists he is concentrating on are not ISIS, but our preferred rebels who have been making strides in weakening the Assad regime

Here is our dilemma.   Putin is clearly bombing rebels whom we have supported and all the Obama administration has been able to come up with publicly is a verbal condemnation of Putin’s actions and some kind of air war agreement with Russia to make accidental clashes in Syria’s skies between our air forces less likely.

It has been reported that covertly we are now supplying our preferred rebels with a Santa-like abundance of anti-tank weapons from Saudi Arabia via our CIA.  Actually smaller quantities of those arms have been surprisingly effective in weakening Assad’s forces, which may have prompted Putin’s stepping up his support.  But that quiet support is lost in the news shuffle and we appear to be doing nothing in response to Putin’s attacks.

Right at this moment Russian planes are assisting government troops attempting to secure Aleppo in northern Syria.  It is reported that there has been an influx of several hundred Iranian troops and Hezbollah rebels to aid in this fight.   Meanwhile Putin continues to speak about his attacks in Syria as if most were aimed at ISIS, while the reality is just the opposite.

So, basically Putin is working against our interests while lying about it, his m. o. I would say.

The big question is how much does our inaction hurt our “super power” credibility in the Middle East and perhaps on the world stage?   When it comes to that credibility, how does one measure it?   I don’t know, but those who insist we need to push back harder on Putin believe the harm is great.  Others argue that our true interests are not at stake and emphasize the need for caution.

The debate is alive in the White House as described in an article in Politico:  Rift in Obama Administration Over Putin, though those pushing for more action are losing the argument for now.    The Christian Science Monitor  examines the credibility issue and how some of our allies in the region may become drawn to Putin’s decisiveness and determination when compared with Obama’s image of indecisiveness.

A defender of Obama’s cautiousness can be found in this article in Reuters with the catchy title:  How to respond to Russia in Syria while avoiding world war three.   The writer argues that our important interests are not being challenged by Putin and cautions against over reaction.   Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have an answer to the problem other than Obama must give up the notion that Assad must leave so that talks can begin to stabilize the country.

After four years of asserting Assad must go I can not imagine Obama allowing him to stay, so if some form of peace is to come some day to Syria it will be at a time of Putin’s choosing, his deciding he would be better off without Assad.

In the meantime we may just keep waiting and seeing.

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(P. S. – IF YOU HAVE MADE IT ALL THE WAY TO THE END OF THIS POST, I ADMIRE YOUR TENACITY.  THANK YOU.    THE SYRIAN SITUATION IS SO COMPLEX AND IN MY MIND DANGEROUS TO WORLD ORDER THAT I NEEDED TO PUT AT LEAST THIS MUCH DOWN TO BEGIN TO REALLY EXPLORE THE ISSUE.)

The Destruction of Syria’s Chemical Weapons: How’s it going?

The answer:  Surprisingly well it seems.  That’s why we hear little about it.   Problems with the roll out of Obamacare, on the other hand, receive hours of coverage each day by the mainstream media.   I recall the old expression “no news is good news.”  It also seems:  Good news is no news.

The Hague (the Netherlands) Organisation of th...

The Hague (the Netherlands) Organisation of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But back to those chemical weapons.  When they were big news a couple of months ago it was because it looked like the Assad government had used them and perhaps even worse, they seemed in danger of being grabbed by one or more of the extremist groups which make up much of his revolutionary  opposition.

Then if you recall (or if you don’t  check out this refresher post), through an odd series of events, the U. S. and Russia made a deal (with Assad’s acceptance) to destroy all of the chemical weapons and facilities to make them, a proposal whose chances of working seemed very “iffy” at best.

Well, according to several articles I have read, despite the ongoing civil war, considerable progress has been made in dismantling those weapons sites in Syria and the biggest challenge now seems to be finding a nation that is willing to take the deadly chemicals and destroy them.   Albania seemed a good prospect, but demonstrations against the idea changed its government’s mind and no other European nation is willing to take on that role.

At least Norway has offered a ship and several escort vessels to tote that evil stuff somewhere to be destroyed should there be any takers.  Over the last few days there has been talk of bringing the means to destroy the chemicals to Syria itself instead of the other way around, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The point is that despite the huge difficulties, the The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (which has been tasked with the job), has said that ‘the most critical chemicals’ would be removed from Syria by the end of 2013″…..(and the)….”destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons facilities would take place between December 15 and March 15 “according to a risk-based criterion.”

This according to a recent article in CNN on line, which you should click if you want more information than given in this thumbnail sketch.

If those chemical weapons wind up destroyed, that will be great news, but not likely to garner as much attention as would the whole plan falling apart and Muslim extremists grabbing a goodly supply of killer chemicals with which to terrorize the region and perhaps the world.

Now that’s  a story our news people could sink their teeth into.

Qualms about U. S. Strikes in Syria

Just in case anyone who has read my last two posts regarding Syria thinks I do not have qualms about U. S. military strikes in response to the avowed “red line” being crossed regarding chemical weapons, I assure you I do.

United States Capitol

United States Capitol (Photo credit: Jack’s LOST FILM)

I have plenty of qualms.  Fortunately, the keys ones have been expressed well in a short column by Matt Miller in the Washington Post, saving me  time and effort by just linking you to them above.

However, Qualm #6 I want to quote in full here, as it touches upon the role of American exceptionalism in the world, a concept that carries many caveats for me, but one in which I share to the extent we are not like every other nation.  A combination of circumstances have made us the world leader, whether we are keen on having that role or not.  And this produces a unique burden on our presidents.  As Miller writes in Qualm #6:

” … Syria is a reminder of how utterly unique the United States’ role remains in the world. Canadians aren’t demanding that Canada’s leaders step up and stop Assad. Swedes don’t see themselves as having a duty to enforce international law. It’s obvious but worth remembering at this moment that the power of the United States is extraordinary. As a result, so is the responsibility of the person who wins the brass ring. 

…. the enormous burden of decisions like Syria — and their unknowable chain of consequences for years, and even decades — nonetheless falls to him (Obama). The ever-grayer hair is the result. In the end, thanks to one man’s choices, countless lives will be affected for good and for bad.”

Our President made a definitive statement about the use of chemical weapons at a time when it seemed a reasonable statement to make, given international condemnation of their use.   As a result I believe some response must be made or our stature in the world will be diminished.  Our “word” will be tarnished.  How significantly, who knows?  Each nation will draw its own conclusions.

Columnist Kathleen Parker, whose opinion I respect, believes this loss overrated.

 “The United States still carries the biggest stick. We are still the bravest, most compassionate, most generous nation in the history of mankind. When our allies need us, our credibility is beyond reproach. We always act decisively when the stakes are clear. The world knows this. It is our exceptional history, not a single, transitory man, that inspires belief.”

I do not believe our “credibility is beyond reproach” in the eyes of our allies and as to our acting “decisively when the stakes are clear” I would point out how murky are the stakes in the  Middle East these days.  It is all a very messy business, so if we wait for clear stakes to crystalize, we might wait forever.

I believe our habitually gridlocked government has hurt our credibility abroad, with another example of that coming up soon in terms of raising the debt ceiling, which used to be fairly formulaic as it is necessary to pay government bills already accrued.    Now the world has to wait once again to see if we avoid the folly of turning the world’s number one economic power into a deadbeat.

I believe other nations have doubts about our capacity to come together to do anything.  I realize I am in the minority, but I would like to see us come together on this issue, supporting the President in limited strikes, a demonstration to the world that we can work together and do what “we” say we will do.

Syria: “The Problem from Hell”

Syria

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.