Don’t forget Hezbollah

Here is the draft of the State Department dissent message on Syria, on which the New York Times based its coverage yesterday. So far as I can tell the final version is not publicly available, but this draft is polished. The argument is basically that the US has sufficient moral and strategic reason to attack Syrian government forces with stand-off weapons with the goal of getting President Asad to abide by the internationally mandated cessation of hostilities and initiate serious negotiations on a political transition, as required by the Geneva I communique and numerous subsequent international decisions. The dissent memo admits some downsides: a deterioration of relations with Russia and possible “second order” effects.

Those downsides require more consideration. There is no international mandate to attack Syrian government forces. Intervention in this case would in that sense have even less multilateral sanction than the NATO attack on Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, where there was a UN Security Council mandate, albeit one that authorized “all necessary means” to save civilians rather than to change the regime. Asad has not directly attacked the US, even if his reaction to Syria’s internal rebellion has created conditions that are inimical to US interests by attracting extremists and undermining stability in neighboring countries.

The Russia angle is also daunting. Moscow may well react by intensifying its attacks on the opposition forces the US supports, who are already targeted by Russian warplanes. Unilateral US intervention against Syrian government forces would also help Moscow to argue it is doing no worse in Ukraine, where it supports opposition forces behind a thin veil of denials that its forces are directly involved. The US is not ready to respond in kind to Russian escalation in Ukraine, if only because the European allies would not want it. Kiev might be the unintended victim of US escalation in Syria.

Second order effects could also include loss of European, Turkish and Jordanian support, because of an increased refugee flow out of Syria, as well as increased Iranian support for the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, destabilization of Bahrain and Shia militias in Iraq. Greater chaos in Syria could also help ISIS to revive its flagging fortunes and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra to pursue its fight against the Syrian government.

These downsides are all too real, but so is the current situation: Russia, the Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah are making mincemeat of the US-supported Syrian opposition while more extremist forces are gaining momentum. President Obama is reluctant to attack sovereign states that have not attacked the US directly without an international mandate of some sort. That is understandable. But doing nothing military to respond to a deteriorating situation is a decision too, one with real and unfortunately burgeoning negative consequences for US interests.

Hezbollah is the way out of this quandary. It is not a state. It is a designated terrorist group that has killed hundreds of Americans, and many others as well. The Americans say they are fighting terrorist groups in Syria. Why not Hezbollah? Its ground forces there have become increasingly important to the Syrian government’s cause. Getting Hezbollah out of the fight would arguably have as much impact on the military balance as strikes on the Syrian army, which is already a declining and demoralized force.

Washington need not start with military action. It could lead with diplomacy, telling Moscow and Tehran that we want Hezbollah to leave Syria tout de suite. If it fails to leave by a date certain, we could then strip it of its immunity and treat it like the other terrorist groups in Syria. Moscow might even welcome such a move, since Hezbollah efforts in Syria strengthen Iran’s hold, not Russia’s.

Tehran would be furious, claiming Hezbollah is in Syria at the request of its legitimate government. Hezbollah would likely try to strike US, Israeli or even Jewish targets in the region or beyond. It has managed in the past to murder Jews as far away as Argentina. Doing so would confirm the thesis that Hezbollah is a terrorist group and redouble the need to act decisively against it.

No suggestions for what to do or not do in Syria are simple. The situation has gotten so fraught that any proposition will have complicated and unpredictable consequences. But the State Department dissenters missed an opportunity to duck some of the President’s objections and strengthen their own argument by focusing on a terrorist group, rather than the regime’s own forces. Don’t forget Hezbollah.

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Turkey’s Kurdish anxieties

The Bipartisan Policy Center hosted Cascading Conflicts: U.S. Policy on Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds Tuesday morning. This was nominally a launch of its report on Authoritarianism and Escalation: Preparing for the Worst in Turkey’s Resurgent Kurdish Conflict but ranged rather far from that excellent account of how Turkey has repeatedly turned to war when its government has become more authoritarian.

Eric Edelman, Co-Chair of BPC’s Turkey Initiative and former ambassador to Turkey, discussed the mutual misreading of priorities and interests between Turkey and the US. Amberin Zaman, Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Institute, recalled how the peace talks between the PKK and Turkish government in February 2015 raised hopes for reconciliation that were then dashed by President Erdoğan. Ceng Sagnic, Junior Researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, considered how the Kurdish situation in Syria has thwarted Turkey’s foreign policy and prompted its interventionism. Aliza Marcus, Communications Consultant for the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund at the World Bank, assessed the relationship between the YPG/PYD (the dominant Syrian Kurdish organizations) and the PKK (the dominant Turkish Kurdish organization) as well as Turkey’s position on the question.  Ishaan Tharoor, a reporter for the Washington Post, moderated a lively discussion spanning Turkish domestic politics, the fight against the Islamic State (IS), and more.

Amberin Zaman elucidated how domestic and international factors have influenced Turkey’s position on Syria and the Kurdish question. She maintained that peace talks with the PKK faltered in part because of rising tensions with the YPG/PYD in Syria and also in response to Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. Growing Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria has emboldened Kurds everywhere. In the words of Aliza Marcus, no matter how hard the Turkish government hits the PKK domestically, now there will always be a powerful Kurdish presence across the border in Syria.

The conversation then turned to Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism. Ambassador Eric Edelman argued that the US has a vested interest in shaping Turkey’s domestic politics.  Long-term US interests and Turkey’s status as a NATO ally—an alliance intended to be a union of liberal democracies— demand that US use its position to speak out publicly and privately on Turkey’s civil rights violations.

Aliza Marcus explained how the YPG grew out of networks of support for the PKK in Syria. However, despite clear evidence of ties between the two, she said that it is unclear to what extent the PKK and the YPG/PYD are independent decision-makers. She added that, from Turkey’s perspective, the question is irrelevant. The two are one and the same, and nothing will diminish Turkish fears of Kurdish nationalism.

After hearing from audience member and representative of Rojava Cantons, Sinam Mohamed, on Kurdish governance and long-term strategy, Ceng Sagnic contended that Kurdish-controlled areas show more signs of functioning governance than the rest of Syria currently does. He also commented on current Syrian Democratic Force movements into Sunni-Arab areas in northern Syria. Marcus countered that Kurdish forces are not expanding for expansion’s sake, they are simply going where the Islamic State already is–namely Sunni areas.

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Hard questions, difficult answers

Murdered yesterday, Jo Cox gave this last speech in Parliament on Syria (via @ThomasPierret):

Would that we could all lead lives that guarantee we leave behind such eloquent, upstanding memorials!

I can’t match that, but my readers do ask hard questions about the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Here are a few, with answers:

Q: Why do the Russians back Assad?

A: Lots of people more knowledgeable than I am about Russia have tried to answer this one. Most take seriously Moscow’s frequent statements that they are not wedded to Assad personally but want an orderly and legitimate transition in Damascus, not abrupt regime change.

Certainly they don’t want regime change, but I’ve seen no evidence the rest of that summary is true. Now that they have doubled down on Assad by joining the fight last fall, the Russians have in fact welded, if not wedded, themselves to Assad or some proxy for him. There is no conceivable successor regime that would be even half as friendly to Russian interests.

Moscow’s tactical gains through its air attacks have guaranteed it eventual strategic defeat in Syria, where the overwhelming majority of the more than 60% of the pre-war population that was Sunni will be forever hostile to Russia.

Q: How about the Iranians?

A: Iran has been 100% committed to Assad from the get-go. They need Syria to maintain their pipeline of arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, who are Iran’s front-line troops in the confrontation with Israel. Tehran cannot rely on access to Beirut’s airport, and Syria provides strategic depth to Hezbollah.

Iranian strategic defeat is even more certain than the Russian loss of Syria. I would be the first to stand up against retaliation by Sunnis against Shia and Alawites, but the odds of its happening eventually are high.

Q: Why don’t we just go in there any finish off the Islamic State?

A: In some alternate universe where George W. Bush is still president, I suppose we might do that. But the risks of deploying US ground troops to the front lines to fight ISIS are significant. Are we prepared to see 100 American soldiers captured and shot in the back of the head or burned alive? How about 500? Or a thousand? ISIS is significantly more virulent and brutal than even its predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq during the 2000s.

There is also the “day after” problem. The key question once ISIS is defeated is how the territory it once controlled will be stabilized and governed. Without a solution to that, we can expect ISIS (or something worse) to return. The US didn’t do well as an occupier in Iraq in 2003. How well would we do in Syria or Iraq in 2016? Are we prepared to deploy several hundred thousand troops for years to try to make sure things come out right? And pay perhaps another 500 billion or a trillion dollars for reconstruction?

Q: What’s the solution?

A: I don’t know. The last five years of war have made everything more difficult than it might have been in those first six months of peaceful demonstrations, but the clock can’t be turned back.

There are two propositions I find somewhat appealing now.

One is for the US to extend its war on terrorists in Syria, which in practice now targets only the Sunni variety, to Hezbollah, which is a Shia non-state actor. The first step would be telling the Iranians that Hezbollah must leave Syria. We’d have to be prepared to back that up with air strikes. Getting rid of Hezbollah would significantly affect the military balance in Syria, raise the risks to Russia and Iran, and increase the odds of a negotiated outcome.

The second somewhat appealing idea is creation of safe areas for the non-extremist Syrian opposition to govern, one in the north and one in the south. This would give the mostly Arab opposition an opportunity to prove itself a serious competitor to the regime in dealing with the requirements of Syria’s citizens, as the Kurds have begun to do along the northern border with Turkey. Doing this would entail both protecting the safe areas from the air and providing the opposition with the means to protect themselves on the ground, as we already do with the Kurds.

Neither of these propositions is a slam dunk. The first would likely lead to Hezbollah retaliation against American or allies assets somewhere in the region. The second, safe areas, is an inherently difficult operation that provides the regime, the Russians and the Iranians with target-rich environments they would no doubt attack. Safe areas have more often failed (Bosnia) than succeeded (Iraqi Kurdistan).

Q: What do you think of the State Department dissent message urging air attacks on Syrian government forces?

A: I might agree with its overall thrust, as it appears based on the notion that the Russians won’t help and we have to do something to rebalance the military equation. But I’ll need to see a full text before commenting.

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Dear UN,

Riyad Hijab, who heads the High Negotiations Commission of the Revolution and Opposition Forces, writes:High Negotiations Council


Number: 256

Date: 16/6/2016


H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon

United Nations Secretary-General

New York


Al-Waer neighborhood in Homs has been under severe siege for over three and a half years. During that time, al-Waer’s residents have come under enormous pressure – because of dire humanitarian conditions, bombardment and starvation imposed by the Assad regime – to agree to a local truce. The United Nations Damascus office has helped the regime enforce the terms of this truce. In March 2016, the regime again targeted Al-Waer residents.  As a result, the neighborhood is now on the brink of an epic humanitarian disaster. Food items have been denied entirely and medical, emergency, and surgical supplies have not been allowed to enter for over two and a half years.

Al-Waer neighborhood has been continually subjected to systematic bombardment. The regime’s siege exacerbates an already deteriorating humanitarian situation. Additionally, more than 700,000 residents have been displaced, none of whom have returned. Despite this, the UN team in Syria has asked the Al-Waer negotiations committee to meet in the hopes of continuing local negotiations.

We are deeply concerned by what has been relayed to us by the Free Homs Provincial Council and relevant entities in Al-Waer about the UN team there. The UN team has reportedly stressed to the residents through the Al-Waer negotiations committee that the political process in Geneva, per UN Security Council resolution 2254, will not lead to improved humanitarian aid delivery to Al-Waer, and that the only way to receive aid is to submit to the illegal siege tactics of the Assad regime.

We need clarification from the UN about what exactly was meant by the UN country team’s comments in its meeting with the Al-Waer negotiations committee on Saturday 12 June, in which the humanitarian situation in Al-Waer was discussed. The UN team stressed that the Security Council resolution cannot be implemented on the ground without the Al-Waer negotiations committee making major concessions. The UN team stated that the issue of airdrops to besieged areas was nothing more than words that could not be implemented. The best way to get aid to Al-Waer neighborhood was thus to succumb to the Assad regime and agree to its terms.

Unfortunately, this behavior is not limited to Al-Waer. We have seen it repeated by UN staff in several other areas. In addition, UN staff have permitted expired humanitarian aid items into some areas, leading to cases of serious poisoning and the death of some civilians.


We place this matter in your hands with full certainty that you will give it due attention, as we know you are keen for the United Nations to implement Security Council resolutions and to maintain the confidence of the people it serves. Syrians now desperately need the UN to play a strong role to ease the suffering and end the tragedy they have endured for their rejection of oppression and demand of freedom, justice, and the rule of law.

Please accept, Your Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.


Dr. Riyad Hijab

General Coordinator of the High Negotiations Commission

of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces


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Dump Trump

I’m a Democrat, albeit one who votes often for local Republicans. I don’t like the one-party “state” I live in. I’d have preferred to register as an independent. But that means my voice would never be heard. Elections here are almost always decided in closed primaries. The District of Columbia isn’t even a state like the other 50, which means I don’t get to vote at all for Senators or a voting member of the House.

So I had absolutely no voice in whom the Republicans chose as their candidate. Nor did I much care, since I wasn’t going to vote for any one of the 16 (or was it 18?)  candidates who joined the primary horse race. Even Governor Kasich, the most proven of them, had a record on abortion and gay marriage that we used to call neanderthal, until we discovered that they were pretty smart.

Trump is smart too. He understood that many Republican primary voters are racist misogynist xenophobes. His anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-abortion rants and sound bites gained him their votes, while his competitors split the remainder. Trump voters like his bold, unsubtle grab, accentuated by his repetition of vacuous and unsupported claims that the people he just offended will “love” him.

The trouble is they don’t and won’t. His negatives among women, Hispanics and minorities generally (including Blacks and Jews as well as Muslims, gays and lesbians) are astronomical. Even the Republican leaders in Congress don’t like him and are refusing to defend him. Utah is thought now to be in play! That we, and the rest of the world, have to put up with another five months of this loser’s narcissistic bombast is unfair, cruel and unusual. Those who didn’t vote for him in the primaries and won’t vote for him in the election don’t deserve this.

This screed wouldn’t be complete without some reflection on foreign policy and national security. Trump is already having an effect there: his anti-Muslim rhetoric supports the Islamic State claim that the West is at war with Islam, his pro-Putin sympathies give comfort to our antagonist in Ukraine and Syria, his offer to meet with Kim Jong-un undermines efforts to isolate a fanatical nuclear proliferator who threatens American troops and important American allies.

Yesterday he sought to boost the value of a commodity he owns that has lost almost one-third of its value from its peak around five years ago, by suggesting he supports returning to the gold standard. That’s a dumb idea with zero chance of becoming reality. What other personal interests will he seek to promote during the campaign?

The only way out is for Republicans to dump Trump. That won’t be possible at or after the convention. He has too many pledged delegates lined up. It has to be prepared in advance and implemented by Trump himself. The Republican leadership in both houses and in the party should tell Trump now that the joke is over. He needs to step aside and allow the convention to choose a serious replacement. Any serious Republican will do: Romney is the obvious choice and would surely do better against Clinton than Trump.

Failing to dump Trump will risk bringing to office an unqualified pathological liar capable of doing serious damage both domestically and internationally.

Or, in the more likely event of his defeat, it will spell the end of the Republican party as we know it, and likely just the end of the Republican party. This will be its third presidential loss in a row, one I expect will be resounding. The Democrats survived that kind of near-death experience in the Reagan/Bush 41 period, but they retained control of the House and regained control of the Senate. This time the Senate and maybe even the House will turn Democratic. The Republicans will likely split if not implode.

That’s my fear. I prefer that the two-party system survive. There is only a month for the Republicans to save it. I hope they have the courage to do so. Dumping Trump will save their party from an ignominious defeat and preserve a serious electoral competition.

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Pay the piper

The Syria Campaign’s Taking Sides, a report out today on how the United Nations operates its humanitarian relief efforts in Syria in favor of the government, is dramatic. It illustrates that the UN gives the Syrian government a veto over how and when aid is distributed, resulting in supplies going overwhelmingly to government-controlled areas. It concludes:

The United Nations (UN) in Syria is in serious breach of the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality.

But the issue is not an academic one of principles. It has a real impact on the ground inside Syria, where aid is just not reaching many opposition-held areas.

For Americans, what this means is that some portion of the $4.5 billion in tax dollars we have spent on Syria-related relief during the past five years or so has gone exclusively to regime-controlled areas, thereby supporting the government of Bashar al Assad. For 2016, that means a substantial portion of the more than $250 million pledged to the UN. Russia and Iran, both of which are belligerents with troops on the ground supporting the Syrian government and therefore contributing to the humanitarian crisis, have pledged zero in 2016 (Russia’s total for the past five years is $36 million while Iran’s is zero).

Some US aid does go to opposition-controlled areas, through cross-border shipments by nongovernmental organizations operating from Jordan and Turkey. US government officials will likely want to point this out, but they may not do so to protect the semi-covert character of many of these shipments.

What the Syria Campaign advocates is that donors make their support conditional on the UN maintaining the most basic of humanitarian principles: that aid should go to people based on need and need alone. That may sound blindingly obvious, but it is exceedingly difficult in a conflict zone. The Syrian government uses the leverage it gets from the UN’s presence in Damascus to make sure it doesn’t happen.

So the issue comes down to this: is the UN prepared to continue operating in Damascus, or would it do better to threaten to leave and operate exclusively from other countries? The Syria Campaign thinks the government would yield, at least in part, to a UN threat to leave, because it needs the relief the UN supplies to continue to flow to parts of the country it still controls.

Certainly the odds of any relief supplies getting to opposition areas the government has besieged would decline even further if the UN were to leave Damascus. The political economy of shipments into besieged areas gives the regime good reason to maintain its stranglehold. But the UN could be far more aggressive in providing cross-border assistance to areas that are not besieged from neighboring countries if it were not under the government’s thumb in Damascus.

Ideally, the Syrian government would cave to a UN threat to leave the capital and allow more shipments to opposition-controlled areas. That however seems unlikely, especially during a period when government forces are on the offensive and making some progress.

One thing the US could do, if the UN stays in Damascus, is reduce its aid channeled through the UN and increase its cross-border efforts. It could also tell Moscow and Tehran they need to fill the resulting gap in UN funding. It is time that those who call the government’s tunes pay the piper.


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