Answers to Friedman

In reply to my friend @giacomonyt, here are answers to Friedman’s poorly composed questions:

1. Can they name the current leader of the Syrian National Coalition, the secular, moderate opposition, and the first three principles of its political platform? Extra credit if they can name the last year that the leader of the S.N.C. resided in Syria. Hint: It’s several decades ago.

A: The SNC (Syrian National Council) is no longer what Friedman says it is. He means the Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (usually abbreviated SOC), which includes the SNC. The SOC leader is Hadi Bahra.  I have no idea when he last resided in Syria, but it isn’t likely to be recently given the oppression there. Hadi was born in Damascus but went to university in the US. So what?

The SOC principles are these:

  • Absolute national sovereignty and independence for Syria.
  • Preservation of the unity of the Syrian people.
  • Preservation of the unity of the country and its cities.
  • Overthrowing the Syrian regime and dismantling the security forces and holding responsible parties accountable for crimes against the Syrian people.
  • Not to engage in any dialogue or negotiations with the regime.
  • Uphold our commitment for a civil democratic Syria.

Of course they’ve violated number 5 by going to the Geneva 2 negotiations, which was the right thing to do but has produced no good outcome.

2. Can they explain why Israel — a country next door to Syria that has better intelligence on Syria than anyone and could be as affected by the outcome there as anyone — has chosen not to bet on the secular, moderate Syrian rebels or arm them enough to topple Assad?

A: I have reason to believe that the Israelis are helpful to the Syrian opposition when possible, even though they understand perfectly well that it will be more insistent on return of Golan than Bashar al Asad, who has essentially let the matter drop. Israeli intelligence officers can tell you all about the configuration of forces on their border with Syria and the risks that extremists pose there. They have wanted Asad gone, because they knew that letting him stay would increase the likelihood of an extremist succession.

3. The United States invaded Iraq with more than 100,000 troops, replaced its government with a new one, suppressed its Islamist extremists and trained a “moderate” Iraqi army, but, the minute we left, Iraq’s “moderate” prime minister turned sectarian. Yet, in Syria, Iraq’s twin, we’re supposed to believe that the moderate insurgents could have toppled Assad and governed Syria without any American boots on the ground, only arming the good rebels. Really?

A:  Does Friedman really believe that invasion and foreign occupation is the only way to bring down a dictator? Maliki was sectarian before we left. He didn’t turn that way afterwards. The moderates we should have supported in Syria from the first were the nonviolent protesters. Had they been successful–and it is likely they would have been much faster than the armed rebellion–this question would not have arisen.

4. How could the good Syrian rebels have triumphed in Syria when the main funders of so many rebel groups there — Qatar and Saudi Arabia — are Sunni fundamentalist monarchies that oppose the very sort of democratic, pluralistic politics in their own countries that the decent Syrian rebels aspire to build in Syria?

A: This implies that if the Qataris and Saudis get their way Syria will be a Sunni fundamentalist monarchy. Really? There is good reason for both the Saudis and the Qataris to oppose the Islamic State and to support a relatively moderate regime in Syria.

5. Even if we had armed Syrian moderates, how could they have defeated a coalition of the Syrian Alawite army and gangs, backed by Russia, backed by Iran, backed by Hezbollah — all of whom play by “Hama Rules,” which are no rules at all — without the U.S. having to get involved?

A: Whatever US involvement is needed now to defeat the Islamic State will be much greater than would have been required two years ago to defeat Asad.

6. How is it that some 15,000 Muslim men from across the Muslim world have traveled to Syria to fight for jihadism and none have walked there to fight for pluralism, yet the Syrian moderates would not only have been able to defeat the Assad regime — had we only armed them properly — but also this entire jihadist foreign legion?

A: Friedman needs to meet the many Syrians and expats who have returned, not only to fight but more importantly to provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian population, establish some semblance of governance in liberated areas and counter the push toward extemism and sectarianism. The jihadist foreign legion was attracted by Asad’s success. They would not have emerged in Syria had he failed early in the game.

PS: In my haste this morning, I skipped an important point.  The arming of the moderate opposition was never proposed to defeat Asad’s forces. It was intended to bring him to a serious negotiation for a democratic transition. That it might have achieved, had it been aggressive enough.

What to do about the Islamic State

President Obama yesterday pledged, in addition to military and humanitarian assistance to Iraq:

…we will continue to pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide against ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] by supporting the new Iraqi government and working with key partners in the region and beyond.

What does turning the tide mean? Does it mean defeating ISIL? Does it mean helping the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga to retake territory from ISIL? Or does it mean only disrupting ISIL’s efforts to govern the territory it controls? What lies behind these few, vague but suggestive words?

A lot turns on the answer. It wouldn’t be the first time this president, and his predecessors, promised a long-term strategy and never delivered a clear set of goals with the ways and means to achieve them. Even more than some of his predecessors, President Obama seems inclined to manage problems rather than solve them, especially when doing so would conflict with the overall goal of removing U.S. troops from war zones. That is something he and the American people want.

But the statement yesterday could also represent a change in President Obama’s attitude towards towards the ISIL threat, which he has wanted to ignore when it was limited to Syria and even when it first entered Iraq. That would be a mistake. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both hoped to ignore or at most disrupt and deter the Al Qaeda threat and lived to regret it. ISIL has picked up the Al Qaeda standard from its defeats in Afghanistan and Yemen and carried it from Syria into Iraq, daring along the way to declare a caliphate that the remnants of Al Qaeda say is premature.

For the moment, ISIL does not appear to threaten the United States directly. It prioritizes establishing the caliphate and has its hands full with that. In Syria, it is advancing on Aleppo from the north even as the regime is making progress in encircling the city center. In Iraq, it yesterday lost control of the Mosul Dam to Iraqi and Kurdistan government forces taking advantage of American air strikes, though it still controls more or less one-third of the country. If it remains in that posture, it won’t be long before ISIL takes a crack at the US, either by attacking forces deployed in Iraq or by striking–perhaps using proxies–American civilians.* The US is far from impregnable, as 9/11 and subsequent attempts have demonstrated, and American citizens are vulnerable throughout the Middle East.

We have no reason not to take the ISIL threat seriously. Brian Fishman prefers to contain it for now, while building up governance capabilities in Iraq and Syria that could eventually take on the job of defeating it. That requires a lot of wishful thinking, since the many years of American efforts to build up governance in Iraq have come to nought. Others want the President to commit to defeating ISIL militarily. Bing West suggests what that would take. The quality and quantity of the commitment he thinks necessary are nowhere to be seen right now.

Sunni attitudes towards ISIL and its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi are one critical factor determining how long ISIL thrives. Hussein Ibish reports unwillingness among Sunnis to acknowledge that ISIL is real and has strong roots in Sunni communities. Many prefer to imagine that ISIL is a Western or Israeli construct (even that Baghdadi is a Jewish actor), which means they don’t like it but also don’t own it. He writes:

So as long as many Sunni Arabs hide behind conspiracy theories or point the finger elsewhere, the real meaning of the horrifying IS phenomenon will remain unexamined, and a serious response aimed at correcting the social and cultural distortions that have produced it will be unattainable.

And, in turn, that will ensure that the pushback against the IS and similar fanatics is, at best, delayed or ineffective. The Islamic State itself should be delighted. Nothing could be better calculated to facilitate a continuation of their string of successes than Baghdadi Denial Syndrome.

Nor should American allow themselves to be deluded. Baghdadi is real and ISIL is a threat. We need to decide what to do about it.

*That didn’t take long:  ISIL apparently executed today (8/19) an American journalist it took captive in Syria two years ago.


News reports today suggest that Iraqi forces are making progress in re-taking the Mosul Dam from Islamic State (IS) forces while Ukrainian forces are moving into the rebel-held town of Luhansk. Both are significant developments, if confirmed. The Gaza ceasefire ends at midnight, in just a few hours.

In Iraq, the press has put the emphasis on the risk of flooding should the Mosul Dam be breached.  IS was unlikely to indulge that fantasy while its forces held Mosul, which would suffer the most. The interesting thing about the operation to retake the Mosul Dam is the American involvement, justified on the basis of protecting critical infrastructure (and the US embassy in Baghdad).

That could cover a good deal more American engagement, which is likely to be successful so long as it has effective fighting forces on the ground to take and hold territory. So far I am detecting little domestic American opposition to attacking the IS, which represents a serious threat to US in interests both in the Middle East and at home. Another important development would be Sunni tribes rising against IS, which is being reported (but not yet in the US press).

In Ukraine, Kiev’s army appears to be making headway in the east, where rebels are reportedly in sometimes drunken disarray. That could bring more blatant Russian intervention, which has been surreptitiously growing over the last week. But Russian President Putin’s intentions remain foggy. He won’t want to see the insurgents routed, but he may be willing to cut a deal for more autonomy for the Donbas region. Crimea, which Russia has annexed, is already costing him a bundle, and pro-Russian sentiment in Donbas has proven much less vigorous than in Crimea. Some think Putin’s Novorossiya day dream is coming apart at the seams. The latest round of sanctions appears to have given Moscow pause.

The effort to negotiate a more permanent ceasefire in Gaza appears stalled, with Israel insisting on demilitarization of Hamas and Hamas insisting on ending the Israeli blockade. There is a deal to be had there: one that opens Gaza to trade but verifiably blocks weapons and materiel headed for weapons maufacture as well as tunnels and the like. European and Egyptian cooperation will be vital to making it feasible. The Palestinian Authority will need to be given a serious role in monitoring cross-border transfers. Other issues, like release of Palestinian prisoners re-arrested after the killing of three Israeli teens, apparently also remain unresolved.

Even in the absence of a deal by tonight’s midnight deadline, the Gaza war is unlikely to return to its previous intensity, as neither side at this point seems to think it can gain much from risking its main forces. Mutual counteroffensives–rocket barrages from Gaza and Israeli bombardment from sea and air–could however start up again. That will be most unwelcome to Gaza civilians, who face an astounding reconstruction challenge. Hamas is going to have a hard time maintaining its popularity once the fighting ends definitively. Something similar seems likely in Israel. Netanyahu, who gained politically during the war, will have a hard time explaining what was gained.

I can’t say peace is breaking out all over. But there are prospects in Iraq and Ukraine for setbacks to recent offensives. In Gaza, a decent outcome is possible, but only if Israel and Hamas eventually reach an agreement that goes far beyond their past ceasefires.


Peace picks August 18-22

A quiet mid-summer week in DC:

  1. Symbolic Nation-Building in Croatia from the Homeland War to EU Membership Tuesday, August 19 | 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm Woodrow Wilson Center, Fifth Floor; 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Drawing on a recently published Strategies of Symbolic Nation-Building in Southeast EuropeVjeran Pavlakovic will analyze the nation and state building strategies of the Croatian elite since the country attained independence, following the Homeland War, 1991-1995. In his presentation, Pavlakovic will focus on the role of contested narratives and commemorative practices related to the wars of the 20th century in the political arena.
  2. History Impedes Future Progress in Northeast Asia Tuesday, August 19 | 2:00 pm – 5:30 pm Heritage Foundation; 214 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The US and its allies face growing security threats in Asia from North Korea and China. Given these challenges, it is critical that trilateral US-Japan-South Korea relations remain strong. Yet Tokyo-Seoul relations are strained due to a difficult legacy of historical problems. What are the challenges to reconciliation and what steps can Japan and South Korea take? What role should Washington play to redirect attention toward common allied objectives?
  3. Africa Development Forum Event: A Discussion with YALI Fellows Tuesday, August 19 | 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm Barbaricum; 819 7th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Through the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Fellowship Program, 500 of the continent’s most promising young leaders followed a six week academic program at some 20 US colleges and universities. Selected YALI fellows are remaining in the US after their program to participate in internships in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Please join the Africa and the Youth in Development Work Groups for a lively discussion with several of the YALI fellows on their Fellowship experience to date, their thoughts on its impact on US-Africa Relations, and their expectations when they return to their home country.
  4. The Ukraine Crisis and Russia’s Place in the International Order Wednesday, August 20th | 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; 1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND For over two decades, the US and Europe have been trying to integrate Russia into the international order. This post-Cold War strategy yielded some success, but has now come crashing down over following Russia’s aggressive turn and the ensuing crisis over Ukraine. Brookings will host a discussion on what Russia’s foreign policy turn means for the international order and for U.S. foreign policy. Thomas Wright, fellow with the Project on International Order and Strategy (IOS), will moderate a conversation with Brookings President Strobe Talbott, Senior Fellow Clifford Gaddy of Brookings’ Center on the US and Europe (CUSE) and Susan Glasser, editor at Politico Magazine.
  5. The Border Crisis and the New Politics of Immigration Thursday, August 21 | 11:00 am – 12:30 pm Heritage Foundation; 214 Massachusetts Ave., NE, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The crisis at our southern border is intensifying. President Obama’s failure to faithfully administer our immigration laws has handcuffed our border agents, jeopardizing the lives of those we entrust to maintain security and stability in the area. Just as troubling is the unprecedented wave of unaccompanied minors crossing the border from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Unfortunately administrative amnesty and talk of comprehensive immigration reform have only escalated the situation. So, what steps should we take to alleviate this crisis?

Keeping it nonviolent

The events in Ferguson, Missouri have reminded me of events in Cambridge, Maryland forty years ago. I stumbled recently on this piece my Freshman year roommate (Tom Howe) and I published in the Haverford Twopenny Press (an alternative student mimeographed broadsheet) on May 15, 1964.  At the time, Cambridge, Maryland was on what was called the Delmarva Peninsula (I didn’t hear “Eastern Shore” until many years later, when it was desegregated and gentrified). George Wallace was the segregationist Governor of Alabama, serving the first of four terms. Delmarva, despite its geographic location, was very much part of the deep South and thoroughly segregated.  

Cambridge, Maryland

Monday, May 22, the civil rights demonstration season opened in Cambridge, Maryland. The newspapers have covered the event with their usual modicum of accuracy. We fear, though, that newspaper accounts of radical demonstrations are being mass-produced in gingerbread-tin minds. In an effort to preserve the uniqueness of this demonstration and to remind students that each protest is a new chapter in the revolution, we present this eyewitness account of the proceedings in Cambridge Monday.

On the way to Pine Street, the main street of the Negro section, the Swarthmore veterans of last summer’s work in Cambridge pointed out the landmarks. On this side of Race Street is the white section. On that side, the Negro section. The division was accented by the groups of National Guardsmenat each corner along Race Street. On Pine Street, we stopped at Elks Hall, the scene of the mass meeting to be held at the same time as Governor Wallace’s rally.

After listening to some of the speeches at the mass meeting, about forty students walked in small groups toward the volunteer fire department hall, where Governor Wallace was to speak at 8:00. Group after group of students was turned back by four men tending the door. The rally, which had been publicized for days as a public gathering, had suddenly become closed to those without invitations. Repeated appeals for admission were met with increasingly surly replies. We were told there was no room, that we had to have invitations, and that we were not wanted. Students from Haverford, Swarthmore, Penn State, the University of Delaware and the University of Georgia stood about thwarted and angry. Demonstrations are forbidden in Cambridge under the modified martial law instituted over nine months ago.

When we returned to Pine Street, the mass meeting had left Elks Hall. Led by Gloria Richardson and Stanley Branche, the crowd of about a thousand changed and sang as it turned toward the hall where Wallace was still speaking. The unified rhythm of such a crowd is irresistible. Your voice joins other voices until there is one voice. Your hands clap until they are not your hands, and you have a thousand hands. We marched, our feelings were in step.

At Race Street, the National Guard drew the line. We were in the middle of the crowd, so we could not see what had happened, but everyone understood. They had stopped the walking, but not the march. The feelings were there, and growing stronger. We sang.

Then the Guard made its first attempt to disband the crowd. A tear gas bomb popped over the heads in front. Everyone took a few frantic steps, and the shout went up, “Everyone down.”

I looked up. For the first time, I saw the Guardsmen. Their bayonets fixed, gas masks on and rifles half-lowered. In those seconds of first seeing the soldiers I learned what newspaper articles and pictures could never say. Only direct experience imparts the flesh and blood, technicolor reality of those men and their bayonets.

We were not granted time to contemplate what we saw. A truck loaded with Guardsmen drove up quickly behind the demonstrators in a second attempt to scatter them. The crowd had been powerful when it was a walking, singing wave. Sitting down, it was a solid wall. The truck met that wall and stopped. Moments later, the perplexed driver backed up as demonstrators banged on the front of the truck.

Brigadier-General George M. Gelston made the next dramatic attempt to disperse the demonstrators. He stood in a jeep and talked into a PA system. He might as well have been in a silent movie. He moved his lips meaninglessly as we sang.

A minute later, the singing stopped. Gloria Richardson, Chairman of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, stood where the Brigadier-General had stood before. Talking into the same PA system, she told the demonstrators that they would have to return to Elks Hall because there were too many children in the crowd. The leadership was not going to dey the Nation Guard with civil disobedience if children were going to be hurt.

We returned without the same rhythm of the forward march. Yet this was not a defeat. Our own leader, not the National Guards, had turned us back. Many of the hands that had clapped before were now clasped together. They were still strong hands.

The students left during the meeting in Elks Hall. We heard John Lewis, head of SNCC, and Stanley Branche, head of the Chester Committee for Freedom Now, instruct the demonstrators to leave their children at home and bring their dignity. When we left, it was clear that there would be another demonstration in Cambridge. One prepared for civil disobedience. Four hours later we picked up the Inquirer in Philadelphia. 250 had marched and been tear gassed.

We learned in Cambridge what we could not have learned in the Haverford Library. Outside of the hall where Wallace spoke, we saw the ugliness and the fear of the racist. Marching, we felt what meant by “we shall overcome.” Sitting, we could not be moved. Knowing these realities, we no longer doubt why people march, why people sing, and why people sit in a street to be tear gassed. The direct action protest is an assertion of the dignity and rights of man. Anyone who knows the dignity and rights of man will participate in direct action protest.

Where international help likely won’t arrive

France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States Wednesday denounced the growing violence in Libya, where armed groups are going at it with increasing intensity.  The Western powers rightly say the violence threatens Libya’s transition and suggest it may breach international humanitarian law, as it targets civilians.

The question is:  are they going to do something about it? The newly seated Libyan parliament asked this week for international peacekeepers. That is not going to happen.  None of the countries denouncing the violence is ready to intervene. Nor will the UN, which will want a political settlement first.  It deploys once there is a peace to keep, not before.

Egypt and Algeria, Libya’s most powerful neighbors, might like to see a dictator back in charge in Tripoli and the Islamists crushed, but neither will be willing to take the risks associated with making it happen. The UAE is believed to be paying for some of the anti-Islamist “dignity” campaign of Khalifa Hiftar in Benghazi, but he has been less than fully successful.

That’s the problem in Libya: despite two relatively good elections since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, its Islamists and non-Islamists are still struggling for predominance.  The government has little capacity to establish law and order. The city-based revolutionary brigades, most notably Zintan allied with the non-Islamists and Misrata with the Islamists, are fighting for control over the vast patronage that Libya’s oil revenue enables. Everyone fears being excluded and even destroyed. People with existential fears fight hard for survival. The government continues to cut checks for 260,000 “revolutionaries” on all sides of the chaos, no more than 20% of whom actually engaged against Qaddafi during the revolution.  It is too frightened of the people it is paying to cut them off.

The Libyans need what neighboring Tunisia now has:  a political pact that eliminates the existential threats its many factions now think they face and moves their disputes from a violent arena to a political one.

No one but the Libyans can reach such a pact. But the internationals can and should help. The UN mission in Libya is the right organization to reach out to the Islamists, who think they have the most to fear from disbanding militias and consolidating the state’s monopoly on the legitimate means of violence. Some of the Islamists are extremists associated with terrorist organizations of one sort another, but there can be no political settlement without them, because they’ll spoil it if one is attempted. The Western powers will need to stand aside and allow the UN to do the difficult work of trying to entice the Islamists into a political discussion and eventually a pact that will allow transfer of the conflict into nonviolent means.  Neighboring Tunisia did this successfully on its own, but Libya lacks the union and civil society organizations that brought the Islamists and non-Islamists to an agreement in Tunis.

Getting there may take time. The brigades seem far from exhausted. Only when they are convinced they will be no better off by continuing the fighting than by reaching an agreement will they be amenable to stopping. This “ripeness” is difficult to predict. It might be accelerated by Egyptian and Algerian pressure or UAE funding, but it is easy to picture the current situation persisting for another year or more, with catastrophic consequences for many Libyan civilians. But they are not a minority crowded onto a mountaintop surrounded by nut-job extremists and threatened with genocide.  They will have to fend for themselves.

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