This is helpful, a continuously updated map of US and allied bombings in Iraq and Syria:
But it is also misleading. Those little bursts suggest that the anti-ISIS coalition is doing its job. And the air attacks may look the same in Iraq and Syria but the impact is so far dramatically different. Someone has to have not only boots, but loafers on the ground. Syria and Iraq need governance and rule of law at the end of this war, not military occupation.
In Iraq, there is at least some hope of real results. The peshmerga are trying to take advantage of the air strikes to push back ISIS. But the Iraqi security forces still have not shown up in any substantial way. Nor is there much hope they will any time soon. No more than half are still viable, and those seem far from able and willing to fight ISIS effectively. The best that can be said today about the war against ISIS in Iraq is that Iran has ordered its forces, and the militias it supports, not to attack US forces. Strange bedfellows.
In Syria, the Americans are not even trying to coordinate with rebel insurgent forces. Turkey is standing by watching while ISIS lays siege to the northern Kurdish town of Kobane, on the Turkish border. The Syrian Kurds are anathema to Turkey because they support the Kurdish rebellion inside Turkey. Nor do the Syrian Kurds get much military support from the Iraqi Kurds, who cooperate with Turkey against the Kurdish rebels inside Turkey.
In neither Iraq nor Syria is it clear what will happen if the anti-ISIS coalition is successful.
At least in Iraq there are governors and provincial councils who in theory are the properly constituted authorities. But the predominantly Shia Iraqi security forces will not be welcomed by large parts of the population in Ninewa,Salaheddin and Anbar. Hopefully the newly formed National Guard, which will recruit on a provincial basis, may be able to exert control, but it won’t be easy.
In Syria, there are lots of anti-regime civil society organizations, including local administrative councils, but they struggle to provide even minimal services to a population that has suffered mightily through more than three years of war. The regime attacks civilian populations in liberated areas, focusing on hospitals, schools and other structures vital to the quality of life. Opposition adherents are no longer so sure as once they were that they want to preserve the Syrian state or the Syrian army. But the nascent Syrian Interim Government (SIG) would be hard-pressed to take over if the regime were to collapse tomorrow.
If President Obama wants to avoid American boots (and loafers) on the ground in Syria, he needs to get much more serious about building the capability of the Syrian opposition to govern effectively, at least in liberated areas. I’d like to see a map not just of those little star bursts but of ink spots of opposition control, all under the authority of the SIG. We are far from that day.
- The Hidden History of Dialogue with Cuba: What Obama Needs to Know About Talking to Havana Monday, October 6 | 9:00 | Brookings Institution | Register to Attend | The Latin America Initiative (LAI) in Foreign Policy at Brookings will host William M. LeoGrande, professor of government at American University, and Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, to present their new book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. They will discuss the findings of their research, and offer recommendations to guide present and future U.S. negotiators. They will be joined by Julia E. Sweig, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies. Ted Piccone, senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, will provide introductory remarks and moderate the discussion
- The History of the Future of Syria Monday, October 6 | 12:00 | Woodrow Wilson Center | Register to Attend | Over the past four years, Syria and the entire Middle East have witnessed unprecedented changes. This lecture will look back on these events in the expectation of determining what may come next. Special attention will be paid to U.S. foreign policy, the growth and proliferation of terrorist organizations such as ISIS, the fate of minorities in the region, and the state of cultural patrimony. Christian Sahner, author of Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present, and doctoral candidate at Princeton University will be speaking.
- Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing: The Role of Business in Overcoming Poverty Tuesday, October 7 | 12:00 – 1:30 | American Enterprise Institute | Register to Attend | When it comes to helping the poor, conventional wisdom tells us that charity is the answer. But that isn’t necessarily true. In “Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing” (AEI Press, 2014), Peter Greer and Chris Horst of HOPE International argue that this commonly held view overlooks the real engine of true human flourishing: entrepreneurial businesses, which sustain productive development long after charitable giving dries up.
- War without Debate: The Constitution, Intervention, and the Strikes against ISIS Tuesday, October 7 |12:00 | Cato Institute | Featuring Gene Healy, Vice President, Cato Institute; and Christopher Preble, Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute; moderated by John Maniscalco, Director of Congressional Affairs, Cato Institute. When Congress authorized the arming and training of Syrian moderates to combat ISIS, it explicitly stated that this action should not be construed as an authorization for the introduction of U.S.armed forces into hostilities. Yet, on the orders of President Obama, the United States has begun bombing ISIS targets within Syria. Did the president violate the Constitution, which grants Congress the exclusive power to “declare War”? If intervention is in America’s national security interest, how should the mission be defined and how should it be achieved?
- ISIS and the End of the Middle East as We Know It Thursday, October 9 | 12:30 – 2:00 | Woodrow Wilson Center | While Western attention is caught by the rise of the so-called “Islamic State”, the real story may be the dissolution of order in the Middle East. How do we understand ongoing political and geopolitical shifts in the region and the rise of new types of actors such as the “Islamic State”? And what, if anything, can and should Western powers do? Volker Perthes is the executive chairman and director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin. He received his doctorate from the University of Duisburg in 1990 and his habilitation in 1999. From 1991 to 1993, Perthes was an assistant professor at the American University of Beirut; he joined SWP in 1992 and headed the Research Group “Middle East and Africa” for several years. His previous teaching positions include the universities of Duisburg, Münster, and Munich; currently, Perthes is a professor at Humboldt University Berlin and Free University of Berlin. In addition, Perthes serves on various national and international bodies such as the Advisory Research Council of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) (as chairman), the International Advisory Council of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies (SIIS), the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), the TCCI Advisory Board of the Turkish Industry & Business Association (TÜSIAD), and the TTIP Advisory Council of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. Perthes is a frequent commentator in German and international media.
Ebola, the Secret Service, Ukraine and Syria have something in common: each in its own way betrays symptoms of institutional failure. The social structures governing behavior have broken down under strain, leading to problems that would not occur at all or would be manageable without extraordinary measures if social norms and the mechanisms that enforce them were performing effectively.
This is obvious in the case of Ebola, which has spread in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia because the health systems there are weak. As Centers for Disease Control (CDC) official Stephan Monroe put it:
“If we ever needed a reminder that we all live in a connected world, this horrible Ebola outbreak is it,” Monroe said.
That means the U.S. and other countries have a stake in investing in developing countries, whose needs may seem to be far from U.S. domestic priorities.
“We need to build systems to find cases quickly before they spread,” Monroe said. “This means strong health systems throughout the region.”
Easily said. Hard to do. Decent surveillance is one of the reasons Ebola has not spread in Nigeria. Inadequate surveillance systems in West Africa are one of the main reasons the disease is now spreading there. Their inadequacy is a reflection of more general state weakness. Sierra Leone and Liberia suffered decades of war. Guinea suffered decades of coups. The health systems in all three countries are devastated. State weakness has consequences.
We are about to see our own institutions challenged. The first Ebola case has now entered the US, ironically in Texas. Ironically because its governor, Rick Perry, has been a vocal critic of Federal institutions like the CDC that are vital to America’s defenses against infectious disease. But it was a private hospital in his own state that failed to recognize Ebola symptoms in a traveler from Liberia, allowing him to circulate for two days and potentially infect a couple of dozen people. Someone should tell Rick Perry to eat his Fed Up tirade.
One of our most august institutions, the Secret Service, has already failed to meet its challenge: ensuring that the President is not exposed to danger. It failed to prevent a fence-hopper from entering and exploring the White House. It also allowed a gun-toting felon into an elevator with the President, on his recent visit to CDC. The Secret Service director has resigned, but there is precious little reason to believe that the laxity and incompetence have been fixed. Once your institutions run down that far, it takes real reform, not just a few firings, to fix them.
The Ukraine and Syria crises are also due to failed institutions. Ukraine has been badly governed since it emerged from the Soviet Union 23 years ago. Successive administrations have plundered its institutions, culminating in former President Yanukovych’s lavish palace. There is no merit in Moscow’s claim that Fascists conducted a coup in Ukraine and chased Yanukovych from office. He abandoned his position when confronted with a popular rebellion, one that admittedly was supported by the Ukrainian nationalist right, including some anti-Semites. But Ukrainians of all political perspectives and ethnicities are right to have doubts about the ability of their weak state to protect their security and rights.
That is even more true in Syria, where even his Alawite supporters are now doubting whether Bashar al Asad has their best interests at heart. His looks like a strong state: it has killed a lot of Syrians and laid waste to a large part of the country. But in doing so he has ensured that the state has little popular support in many parts of the country. The reemergence of polio in Syria is a tell-tale sign of state weakness. A state does not become strong by exerting itself against its own citizens. It becomes strong by giving them good reason to regard its authority as legitimate.
The authorities in Hong Kong have so far avoided Bashar al Asad’s mistakes. They have permitted massive demonstrations in favor of a democratic election to decide the city-state’s future leader in 2017. The demonstrators have also been wise. They have displayed extraordinary non-violent discipline in pursuing their “umbrella” revolution. It looks this morning as if both sides may be prepared to talk. That is a good idea. A crackdown now would be risky not just for the Hong Kong authorities but also for Beijing. There may be no exit apparent, but things could still get much worse for both the demonstrators and the authorities. Even dictatorships like China’s depend on legitimacy.
For those who like their politics visual and don’t object to drones in civilian use:
More than 350 airstrikes have been carried out against the Islamic State in Syria by the US and its allies since September 23. However, the recent focus on IS has kept the Assad regime, and its crimes, out of the spotlight. In opposition held areas, barrel bombings are a routine occurrence, and snipers target civilians indiscriminately. There is evidence for continuing use of chemical weapons – repeatedly challenging the “red line” laid out by President Obama two years ago. The destruction has left little infrastructure remaining.
For civilians living in the conflict zones, the result is a humanitarian disaster. In order to mitigate the suffering, local communities have begun to form volunteer-run organizations to perform basic civil functions and relief work. The United States Institute of Peace held a discussion on Wednesday with members of one such organization. Meet Syria’s Rescue Workers: Saving Lives, Building Peace, brought together two members of the Syrian Civil Defense Units: Raed Salah, Head of the Idlib branch, and Khaled Harah, member of Aleppo city branch, along with Samer Attar of the Syrian American Medical Society, and medical volunteer in Aleppo. Hind Kabawat, Senior Program Officer at USIP, moderated.
Opening the discussion with his experiences working as a doctor in opposition held areas, Attar outlined the difficulties faced by Syrian medical workers. Attar listed the major shortcomings of medicine in Syria as a lack of experienced personnel, of basic supplies, and capacity at treatment centers. With no end to the fighting in sight, these shortcomings will only to intensify.
Across Syria, many doctors have fled. Assad’s forces have targeted medical workers in rebel-held areas. Hospitals are regularly hit by barrel bombs, to the point that makeshift field hospitals are now codenamed and hidden. As resources have been used up or destroyed, the lack of supplies has become more acute. One effect of this is that Syrians no longer seek or receive medical attention for anything other than war wounds. Chronic conditions and routine health problems among those unable or unwilling to leave are not treated. This adds an unseen element to the suffering of Syrian civilians.
Raed Salah and Khaled Harah both spoke of their experiences in the “White Helmets,” volunteer Syrian Civil Defense Units. Salah also discussed the development and spread of the organisation.
The Civil Defense Units comprise localized groups acting as rescue workers to their own communities. The groups originated in refugee camps in Turkey, where refugees received training during relief projects undertaken there. This highlights the importance of continued training and education in the camps. Following Free Syrian Army gains in the north of the country, some refugees moved back, taking with them skills and organizational abilities they had learned. The Civil Defense Units have since grown and attracted numerous volunteers, leading to the formation of more regional units. Salah cites the number of volunteers as over 1000.
The community driven nature of these units has been important to their success. People who sign up work at their local center and undertake rescue work within fixed areas. Both Salah and Harah claimed that this provides a psychological boost and motivation, as they feel they are directly aiding their own community.
The neutrality of the Civil Defense Units was also stressed. Though their first members were Muslim, the first center was opened in a predominantly Christian area. The recruitment policy allows volunteers of all backgrounds. Salah stressed rescue workers do not discriminate politically or religiously when attempting to save people. This has meant that even in areas where conflict between the moderate opposition and jihadist groups, the Civil Defense Units have been allowed access to carry out their work.
Salah and Harah’s organization represents just one example of volunteers performing vital civil roles in the Syrian conflict. These organizations are vital for alleviating the humanitarian crisis, supplementing the work of foreign aid workers. Such groups may also have a role to play when it comes to rebuilding the country. Both men stressed the need for international support and funding for civilian projects like theirs. Though they cautiously supported the recent airstrikes on IS, they felt that by not putting more pressure on the Assad government the US has unintentionally aided the regime’s forces.
Concluding, Hind Kabawat called for the imposition of a no-fly zone to end the continuing bombings by the regime in civilian areas. She also noted that groups like the Syrian Civil Defense Units demonstrate that there is hope for Syria’s future.
A video of the event is embedded below.
Some of you are not going to like this post, which will draw the invidious parallel between America’s excessive reliance on military force in international affairs with the National Football League’s reliance on violence, both on and off the field. But I do think there is something in it.
NPR this morning delved into the NFL’s problems.* It has two:
- violence by its players against women and children off the field
- violence on the field that is causing serious health problems.
The former has been grabbing lots of headlines lately. The latter is the long-term threat to the game. Like boxing, football depends on hits so strong that many of its greats are ending their lives either disabled or early. Knowing this, it is difficult to understand any parent who allows a child to play the tackle version of the game.
Sport as a metaphor for life is not a new idea. The popularity of professional football in America has grown enormously in recent decades. It would be surprising if that did not manifest itself in other spheres. I once asked a foreign minister who had played football for Tulane what he had learned from the game that was applicable to diplomacy. “Hit the opponent hard,” he said. That lesson is being applied increasingly not only in football but also in the other game that has grown enormously in popularity in recent decades: basketball is now a contact sport. Soccer, sad to say, is also headed in the same direction, though it is far behind football and basketball.
Let me be clear: I am not against physical competition. But there is relatively safe physical competition (basketball and soccer still fall in that category) and relatively dangerous physical competition. Football is over my threshold, as is boxing. Both reward maximum damage to the opponent, so long as it is delivered in a licit fashion. Neither basketball nor soccer does that, yet.
In international affairs, there are opponents who merit maximum damage. The Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) is one of them. I am not among those who advocate negotiations with mass murderers. But even in the war on ISIL, we need to be careful not to rely exclusively on kinetic effects (that is what the military calls shooting at people and other targets). ISIL was successful in Iraq because the Sunni community there actively and passively supported it, preferring the jihadists to the Iraqi army and other security forces. Anyone who understands why a virtually all-white police force in Ferguson, Missouri is likely to be ineffectual should understand why mostly Shia security forces in virtually all-Sunni provinces of Iraq would also be ineffectual.
The military traditionally regards efforts to influence people other than by kinetic effects information or psychological warfare intended to win “hearts and minds.” But the material aspects are increasingly important: winning a war now means not only defeating the enemy but somehow restoring services to the people he governed. Otherwise, you end up spawning more conflict, or terrorism. It was above all failure to delivery security to Sunnis that created the conditions in which ISIL flourished in Anbar and Ninewa provinces.
There is no equivalent in American football to service delivery and winning hearts and minds. If you want to win, you score more points than your opponent, delivering in the process as many hard blows as possible, within the ample range of the permissible. Intellect plays an important role in football, as the choice of plays and when to run them is critical to strategy. But what we cheer and admire on the field is mainly the kinetic aspect of the sport. And we unfortunately do the same with our foreign policy.
PS: Here is the NPR piece:
PPS: For those who are still doubting that violence on the field causes serious health problems: Scientists Dissected the Brains of 79 NFL Players. What They Found Is Disturbing. | Mother Jones.
A busy Monday and Tuesday over at USIP, as Washington focuses on extremism and what to do about it:
- MENA Region in Crisis: Islam, Democracy and Extremism Monday, September 29 | 10:00 am – 11:30 am US Institute of Peace; 2301 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington DC REGISTER TO ATTEND Rached Ghannouchi, President of the Ennahdha Party of Tunisia, will discuss the current political and security crisis in the region, including how Tunisia’s democratic transition and experience can be drawn upon when seeking solutions to the protracted crises ongoing in the Middle East and North Africa. He will also consider how dialogue and compromise can pave the way for national unity and reconciliation. Ghannouchi will be joined by Robin Wright, journalist, and fellow at USIP.
- Security and Justice in Post-Revolution Libya: Dignity, Dawn, and Deadlock Tuesday, September 30 | 10:00 am – 12:00 pm US Institute of Peace; 2301 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington DC REGISTER TO ATTEND With Libya’s state security and justice institutions now largely nonfunctioning, some communities have turned to vigilante justice, tribal leaders and elders, or resorted to self-help when faced with conflicts and disputes. USIP will host a discussion to address how this situation arose, and what can be done to change it. Naji Abou-Khalil, Project Manager at Altai Consulting, along with Senior Program Officers at USIP Fiona Mangan and Christina Murtaugh, will form the panel.
- Meet Syria’s Rescue Workers: Saving Lives, Building Peace Tuesday, September 30 | 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm US Institute of Peace; 2301 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington DC REGISTER TO ATTEND Some 600 Syrians known as “White Helmets” or Syrian Civil Defense units, are organized volunteers who act as rescue workers in areas like Aleppo and Idlib provinces in the country’s northwest. They are unarmed and impartial, and operate on principles of solidarity, humanity and impartiality. In the last six months, they have recorded more than 2,500 lives saved. The United States Institute of Peace, The Syria Campaign and the Syrian American Medical Society bring together two such rescuers, Raed Salah and Khaled Harah, to discuss the future of peacebuilding in Syria. They will be joined by Samer Attar, member of the Syrian American Medical Society. The panel will be moderated by Hind Kabawat, Senior Program officer, USIP.
- Exploring ISIL: Context and Repercussions Tuesday, September 30 | 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm World Affairs Council; University of California Washington Center, 1608 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington DC REGISTER TO ATTEND World Affairs Council will hold a discussion about ISIL, one of the most momentous and imposing insurgent groups in the world today. The panel will discuss the group’s background, the US response to it, and how both will impact the security of the region. Speakers include Shadi Hamid, fellow at the Brookings Institute, Thomas Sanderson, co-director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies Transnational Threats Project, and moderator Kate Brannen, senior reporter at Foreign Policy.
- Countering ISIS: An Evening with Ambassador Jeffrey, Former US Ambassador to Iraq Thursday, Oct 2 | 7:00 pm – 8:30 pm Elliott School of International Affairs; 1957 E Street NW, Washington DC REGISTER TO ATTEND Ambassador James F. Jeffrey will discuss ISIS as an organization, the international community’s current plan to counter ISIS, and offer his own opinions and critiques on these plans, in an open discussion with all those in attendance.