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By , August 29, 2013 12:38 pm A think tank without walls Thu, 29 Aug 2013 18:59:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Thu, 29 Aug 2013 18:59:50 +0000 Scott Ryan Charney


(FreedomHouse / Flickr)

I’ve always thought that Bashar Al-Assad often has an uncomfortable look on his face, as if he never envisioned he would be Syria’s president, and never quite got accustomed to the idea.

This make sense, inasmuch as he only seemed destined for the role after his elder brother Bassel died in a car crash in 1994. Now, 13 years after taking office following the death of his father Hafez, “uncomfortable” is an understatement. Syria has been rent by civil war for more than two years. The conflict has spread to the rest of the region, and now a direct military intervention by (at least) the United States, France, and the United Kingdom is a distinct possibility.

This is a frightening development. The Western powers now threatening to strike Syria are using the language of humanitarianism—take Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent condemnation of Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons as a “moral obscenity,” among many other remarks. If indeed the governments of Barack Obama, Francois Hollande, and David Cameron are serious about intervening in the Syrian conflict in order to bring about an end to the humanitarian crisis wrought by the war, their assumptions rest upon a fundamental misunderstanding of these sorts of situations in general, and the present one in particular.

Simply put, war does not work that way.

Faulty Blueprints

Some of President Obama’s advisers are offering the 1999 NATO strikes on Serbia as a useful precedent for a similar attack on Syria. This group famously includes Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who authored a widely read book on the subject and is perhaps today’s most prominent advocate of “humanitarian intervention.” Outside of government, Niall Ferguson has joined in with the battle cry, tarring his opponents with the “isolationist” label.

As a professor of history at Harvard, Ferguson really ought to know better, because if anything the NATO intervention in the Kosovo War demonstrates that such action usually just makes things worse. The 78 days of air strikes did largely bring the war to a close, and with it the violence and expulsions committed by the Serbian forces against the Kosovo Albanians. These atrocities, though sometimes exaggerated, were all too real.

However, such ethnic cleansing actually increased during (and probably in response to) the bombing campaign. On top of that, thanks to the bombing, the Kosovo Liberation Army, which started that particular phase of the Yugoslavian Civil Wars in the first place (thus prompting a heavy-handed and vicious Serbian crackdown) was able, thanks to the NATO intervention, to commit ethnic cleansing against the Kosovo Serbs, and almost completely eliminated Kosovo’s Romani (or Gypsy) population. Also, the air strikes killed civilians on both sides, as well as some of the staff at the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. At the end of the conflict, NATO forces very nearly got into a deliberate firefight with Russian troops, which could have had catastrophic consequences.

Committing one’s military to war overseas for purely selfless reasons is so rare as to be nonexistent, not least because it invariably involves casualties and usually has serious unintended consequences. In 1995, earlier in the breakup of Yugoslavia, NATO aircraft attacked Serbian forces following Serbian war crimes against Bosnian civilians, thus playing a large part in ending the Bosnian phase of the war. Problematically, the Serbs were not the only faction committing atrocities (though theirs were usually larger), and there are some damning unresolved questions about the actions of the Bosnian government regarding the Srebrenica Massacre. NATO’s recent intervention in Libya greatly helped to topple the Gaddafi regime—and promptly turned the country (which had the highest Human Development Index in Africa) over to militiamen with a predilection for racist pogroms, among other things.

There are more successful examples, to be sure. The Indian intervention in the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) ended the massacres being committed by the Pakistani military; the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (1978-1979) toppled the Khmer Rouge and ended its near-omnicidal misrule; and Julius Nyerere’s Tanzanian forces routed Idi Amin’s Ugandan military (1979) and then deposed the tyrant himself. However, in all three cases, the interventions were carried out by the forces of neighboring countries who were being directly affected by refugee flows and military provocations.

How does all of this reflect on Syria today? For one thing, it is not entirely certain as I write this that the Assad regime deployed chemical weapons. What would it have to gain, when the Obama administration has said for months that doing so would constitute crossing a “red line” and invite attack from the United States and others? In contrast, the rebels would have an enormous incentive to essentially frame the regime by exaggerating its crimes, perhaps by deploying chemical weapons themselves and blaming the government. I think this qualifies as “critical thinking.”

For another, why exactly are chemical weapons much worse than metal and explosives? Including them with biological and nuclear weapons in the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” pantheon makes little sense. Besides, each such intervention to support a flailing faction creates a moral hazard, encouraging armed groups to launch violent campaigns based on the expectation that they can incite U.S. or NATO intervention. It also elicits charges of hypocrisy, in which intervening powers only punish or prevent the crimes of one favored faction.

A Regional Conflagration

Most importantly, the sheer complication of Syria’s situation constitutes a giant blazing warning against getting involved. In fact, to speak of “Syria’s situation” today misses the point; it is in fact the situation of the Middle East and beyond. The Syrian rebels are overwhelmingly reactionary Sunnis, along with some Druze, Turkmen, and others (Syria’s Kurds and Palestinians are divided). Some rebels are allied with Al-Qaeda, and these pose a mortal threat to Syria’s Alawites, Shi’a, Christians, and anyone else who relies on the protection of the regime. That menace is compounded by their backward stance regarding women.

The rebels have received extensive support from the brutal monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with Jordan, Turkey, foreign fighters from various countries (particularly Iraq), and, in a limited way up to now, France, Britain, and the United States. The Assad regime has a longstanding close relationship with Russia, based partially on some small Russian military facilities in Syria. Russian advisers may be in the country as well, assisting and manning anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile batteries. Iran is another ally, supplying personnel and equipment, along with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militant group, the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government, and Shi’a warriors from around the region.

The whole situation is precarious. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is 89 years old, and the line of succession is unclear in practice if not in theory. The Kingdom’s unhappy, marginalized Shi’a are watching their Sunni monarch harm Syrian Shi’a while facing off with Shi’a Iran across the Gulf, and coincidentally most of these people live very close to the Kingdom’s most valuable oil fields. They also live across a causeway from Bahrain, where an uprising by the Shi’a majority (with some Sunni support) against the Sunni royal family was repressed with Saudi and Qatari intervention. Tensions still simmer. Saudi Arabia and Qatar cooperated in Bahrain and cooperate in Syria, but are on opposite sides of the deep and bloody Egyptian divide, with the Saudis opposing the Muslim Brotherhood while the Qataris support it. Iran has extensive business relationships with some of the Gulf States, which, along with their small size and geographic vulnerability, will make them less likely to join the Saudis in a war with Iran. Iran has been preparing for such an eventuality for years.

Looking slightly to the west, ravaged Iraq is once again wracked with sectarian violence. The conflict is spilling into Lebanon, and Turkey’s government is not exactly in a position to claim a mandate for anything, especially war with Syria. As for the Israelis, they are in a quandary. The Netanyahu government benefits from the weakening of its antagonistic neighbors, but at the same time does not want to see the Syrian military and Hezbollah gain extensive combat experience. Israel also wants to prevent sophisticated equipment from falling into Hezbollah’s hands, and has launched strikes to try and prevent this. Meanwhile Netanyahu continues to threaten Iran (as Israel also receives threats), which could make a complicated situation even more complicated, as almost nobody in the region wants to be seen fighting on the same side as the Israelis, though it has happened before.

Lest we forget, American personnel are still stationed in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Jordan, and elsewhere. The Iranians will likely lash out if they or Syria is struck by Israel, the Gulf States, or NATO. The Iranians may not see much of a difference between their assailants, whether or not said assailants are working in concert.

It is perhaps hackneyed to refer to a situation like this as a tinderbox, a powder keg, or anything else similarly hazardous, but the comparison is still apt. Like the “Guns of August” in 1914, the current confrontation could not only envelop the region of its origin, but also spread in several directions. The United States, United Kingdom, France, Israel, and Russia are all nuclear powers, and an expansion of the conflict to Afghanistan could involve Pakistan and India. The Chinese, who oppose a strike, are meanwhile watching the situation warily.

Syria’s brutal jihadist rebels do not deserve American help, and even if they did, the situation is so dangerous that getting involved is a potentially catastrophic mistake. In 1956, President Eisenhower and the other NATO leaders could do almost nothing to aid the Hungarian rebels, and the situation was similar for Lyndon Johnson during the 1968 Prague Spring. In both cases, taking a stand would have risked a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. The risk is almost as high today.

The post The Gas of August: Syria and Regional Conflagration appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.


Scott Ryan Charney received an M.A. in U.S. Foreign Policy from American University. 0 Thu, 29 Aug 2013 17:01:30 +0000 Kailash Srinivasan


Chinatown arch in Washington, DC (smilla4 / Flickr)

As Iraq and Afghanistan fade from memory, North Korea has entered the U.S. imagination as the latest threat to national security. Alongside hysterical warnings of impending attack, many foreign policy analysts argue that events on the peninsula reflect an emergent rivalry between China and the United States.

There is solid evidence behind this case. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have come on the heels of the Obama administration’s “Pacific Pivot,” a large-scale effort to redirect U.S. military and diplomatic resources from the Middle East to East Asia. The United States has often admonished China for its inability to restrain the latter’s border ally and dependent. Recent news that the Pentagon will fund 11 new missile defense silos to be placed on the west coast of the United States ostensibly signals that the United States has the material force to back up its threats.

And yet we must take a macro-perspective on the fundamental organization of the international regime. Does China’s ambivalence toward America’s sanctions regime in North Korea imply a challenge to the broader international order? If not, then the supposed rivalry between the United States and China—at least as far as North Korea is concerned—may have little significance. Indeed, it is not rivalry in the classical sense. The real lesson to be learned from North Korea is instead that the Chinese bureaucracy is unwilling to take on a crisis with the potential to escalate.

Revolution No More

The Chinese Communist Party’s actions over the past months demonstrate its essentially conservative nature. In the heyday of the Mao era, from the People Republic’s founding until the late 1960s, Chinese revolutionary leaders would have likely defended North Korea’s provocative rhetoric. Indeed, North Korea’s very existence is due to China’s willingness to fight for communist insurgents even at the risk of its own regime stability. At the outbreak of the Korean War, the Communist Party had only just won power and was already facing the domestic problem of stabilizing a country and an American superpower harassing it. Although the war ended up inflating its international position, the back-and-forth tug across the Korean Peninsula between the UN forces and the People’s Liberation Army by no means guaranteed a favorable outcome.

The current bureaucracy strikes a figure far less imposing than that of the Great Helmsman Mao. Over the past months, China has not supported North Korean belligerence. To the contrary, it has joined the United States and South Korea in crisis containment, and the Chinese Communist Party supported tightening sanctions in response to North Korea’s missile tests. On April 6th, President Xi Jingping said that “no one should be allowed the throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.” China has demonstrated its willingness to participate in “unremitting efforts to properly handle relevant issues.”

Although the United States has threatened to increase its military presence in the Pacific, Secretary of State John Kerry has also declared the North Korean crisis to be an opportunity for increased dialogue and cooperation between the United States and China to curb North Korea. President Barack Obama approvingly noted that China is “recalculating” its policy toward North Korea.

China’s actions have not contradicted Obama’s observation. According to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity to the International Business Times, Chinese envoy Wu Dawei “made it clear” on a recent trip to South Korea that “China will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.” Chinese officials threatened North Korea with an end to economic aid if plans for another nuclear test do not change. The Bank of China has cut off business relations with the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea, and Chinese customs inspections have increased.

China has openly indicated not its hostility to U.S. actions, but rather its alignment and cooperation. Beijing has begun to cautiously participate in, and thus legitimize, the international institutions and mechanisms that ground the present international regime.

Regime Stability Does Not Mean Peace

In arguing that a rivalry between the United States and China does not exist, I am not presuming an opposition between peace and conflict. Neither of these states, nor any other, has ever demonstrated any true commitment to peace. There will be efforts by China to increase its relative power in the world. Its maneuvers in Africa and its increased military spending will most likely proceed barring an economic downturn.

Such moves do not, however, imply a desire by Chinese leaders to increase China’s absolute position by radically changing the existing system. Regime stability does not necessary mean peace. Rather, it may mean that the present organization of violence will not be altered by the Great Powers. The contrast with an earlier era of Realpolitik serves as a useful reminder of how far the interstate system has come. Whereas Germany’s hegemonic pretensions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries led it to adventurist policies, the Chinese have taken no comparable actions. Indeed, the present crisis makes it clear that even the possibility of serious escalation will be limited.

It has been stated that China’s very minimalism presages greater future ambitions. As the argument goes, China recognizes the United States’ still-dominant position and understands that any hasty movement would bring swift reprisal. This argument holds that China is presently building capacity in order to translate it into classical power balancing at a latter date. And yet this is an unproven theory. An interpretation more in line with the evidence is that China’s actions are within and not against the world order.

The standoff between the United States and its allies and North Korea will likely to continue. Crises tend to persist long beyond their relevant timeframe. In terms of how to manage the results in the Korean Peninsula, states will have minor, but predictable, disagreements—internal struggles among elites who are in fundamental consensus.

The overall tenets of the current world system—including neoliberal economics and the containment of perceived sub-systemic threats—are tenets all the Great Powers hope will persist. The crisis in North Korea does not demonstrate the end of consensus, but rather its very strength. If America’s rhetoric seems to goad China toward renewed rivalry, China does not want to enter the ring.

The post North Korea and the Myth of U.S.-China Rivalry appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.


Kailash Srinivasan is a PhD student in Political Science at Ohio State University specializing in international relations, social movements, and contemporary warfare. He has a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the University of Chicago. 0 Thu, 29 Aug 2013 15:58:10 +0000 Rob Prince and Ibrahim Kazerooni

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

“Now we sit and wait while the Washington regime makes its next lethal move. Let us lift our voices in unison to prevent it.”

“Before another rush to judgment and ‘punishment’ based on a presumption of guilt, as in Iraq, this time, let the UN inspectors do their job: We still don’t know who used chemical weapons in Syria — regime or rebels. Without UN Security Council’s approval, any military action by US and its NATO or even Arab allies will itself be illegal, an international war crime itself. Such an attack will not protect innocent civilians, but hurt them. US attacks will backfire, trigger a retaliatory response, escalate the civil war into region or world war.”

– Comments of friends on Facebook

This is the second time in six months that the United States has accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons. The first time, Washington was forced to eat its words as international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, claimed that it was the rebels and not the government forces which had employed them.

Despite calls from all over the world, not to proceed, it appears that the Obama Administration is heading towards a major air attack on Syria. France, UK and Israel will be involved in some measure, either in preparing targets or in the actual bombing. Syria has both insisted that it was not the Assad government which used nerve gas in a Damascus suburb that might have killed as many as 1,300 people but U.S. and Saudi backed Islamic militants who have hijacked the opposition movement, much in the same way similar elements did likewise in both Libya and Mali.

The claim that it was the Syrian government that gassed its own people is wearing thin. Although the Obama Administration continues to again accuse the Assad regime of using sarin gas on its opponents, to date there is no evidence – none whatsoever – that the Assad government has used chemical weapons. The Obama Administration appears to be racing against time. The longer the attack is delayed the more its justification is undermined by both the facts and worldwide opposition to it.

In fact, the pretext for attacking Syria is unraveling, almost daily and as it does, the justification for launching the air war. As the pretext becomes shakier, the need for Washington to strike sooner increases. The parallels with the March 2003 U.S. led invasion of Iraq are striking. Then, Washington first fabricated the danger of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and a supposed link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden as the main reasons for launching the war that destroyed a country. When later, both claims proved to be bogus, the then Bush Administration blithely argued, again with no substantial arguments to back up the claim, that the invasion was worth it all the same.

The world is watching as a similar bogus pretext for military intervention unfolds before our very eyes, with, once again, the full participation of the mainstream American media. The Obama Administration in fact now no longer wants the UN inspectors to investigate the Syrian chemical attack for fear the results could easily contradict administration claims. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made a smooth transition from a 1960s anti-Vietnam War veteran to a post-millennial U.S. Senator in support of the attack on Iran, called UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, asking that the United Nations call off its investigation of the chemical attack. Washington worries that the results could undermine its war plans. Although having proven himself, time and again, ‘pliable’ to U.S. strategic interests, Moon has shown a bit of backbone this time, and despite Kerry’s protests, Moon has ordered the investigation to continue.

Actually there is one strand of logic which suggests that the results of a UN inspection in Syria are academic – the Obama Administration is preparing to go to war again. Although they adamantly deny that the goal of a cruise missile strike is ‘regime change’, this is of course, nonsense. The strike might not have this immediate effect, but it is meant to weaken the Assad government’s military capabilities and strengthen the position of the Syrian rebels, now dominated by Wahabbist/Salafist elements, in their efforts to overthrow the government.

A conflict that could spill over beyond Syria’s borders

The war talk is not just coming from Washington.

The militaries of virtually the entire region are on alert. It might not take much to set a war in motion that extends far beyond Syria’s borders. What makes matters worse is that many of the parties are itching for a fight. Indeed, a scenario not unlike that which existed in Europe in the summer of 1914 appears to be shaping up. Both France and Great Britain appear to be anxious not to be left out of the fighting. There is both a French and British submarine in the Eastern Mediterranean joining. The French President Francois Hollande says France is “ready to punish Syria.” On the other side of the coin, Syria and its allies in the region (and beyond) have vowed to defend themselves, whatever that might mean. Iran has threatened to attack Israel if Syria is attacked. According to the European TimesRussia has threatened to attack Saudi Arabia. The article describes a grim “urgent action memorandum” issued today from the office of President Putin to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation  ordering a “massive military strike”  against Saudi Arabia in the event that the West attacks Syria.

But if the war talk is not just coming from Washington, it is the Obama Administration that is in the lead in this respect.

All this comes at a most curious time, just after the Syrian rebels had been soundly defeated, so much so that Washington was forced to grudgingly agree to negotiations in Geneva, the so-called Geneva II talks. The prospect of the talks gave a ray of hope that some kind of political settlement might be shaped that could end the bloodshed that has now taken somewhere in the region of 100,000 lives and left more than a million refugees. Another related development was the relative withdrawal of Qatar as a major political player in Middle East politics, at U.S. and Saudi request, and the re-emergence of Saudi Arabia as a substantial regional power broker, always, in the end, in the service of Washington. The Egyptian events have also had their effect as, once again, Washington sees the regional situation moving out of its control, its efforts at crisis management – its essential approach to the Arab Spring – falling flat once again.

Finding that none of its regional allies – not the Saudis, Qataris, Egyptians, Turks, nor Israelis  –  have been able to control the situation to Washington’s liking, the Obama Administration has decided to intervene itself – along with its usual subsidiary partners – UK, France (with Israel playing a role too in all this). The initial U.S.-orchestrated (whom else?) attempt to overthrow Syria has failed; and now it is starting to backfire. If Assad’s Syria survives it will become a center of radical nationalism throughout the region. Washington cannot tolerate its failure to have brought down Assad and they fear the consequences. Thus the need to go once more into the breech – this time with U.S. cruise missiles rather than with Wahabbist/Salafist proxies. Since the Saudis and the Turks have failed to “do the job” the Obama Administration finds it necessary to step in. This proposed strike (it might have happened already by the time this is published) is essentially a warning shot – not just to Syria but to the whole region. The message, whether it is a one, two, three day attack is the same: look at the damage the U.S. and friends can do in a few days! And this is just a preview of what is to come  if you (you = the Syrians, Iranians, Hezbollah, the Palestinians) don’t fall in line with U.S. regional prerogatives.

The Neo-cons back in the driver’s seat of U.S. Middle East policy: the feast of the hawks 

After a short time ‘in the wilderness’ but not very far out there at that, the recent hardening of U.S. policy towards Syria represents a shift to the right. The neo-cons are back in the driver’s seat, driving the country once again towards the only foreign policy agenda they seem to understand: war. There are a number of turning points in this policy but the most blatant one was Obama’s bizarre selection of two Republican hawks to represent the administration in the Middle East. Sending John McCain and Lindsay Graham to the Middle East in early August was akin to sending the fox into the hen house. What else would they recommend other than military action. Had Obama hoped to send a different, more conciliatory message to the peoples of the region he could have sent representatives of another persuasion – Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson – even Madeleine Albright – there are others. But McCain and Graham? Who pressed the president for this choice whose goal was to unleash this feast of the hawks.

John McCain has long been associated with the most hawkish wing of U.S. foreign policy. He maintains a close association with a number of ultra-conservative think tanks, among them the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Among its funders is Bernard Marcus (founder of Home Depot), Paul Singer (a major fundraiser for Romney’s presidential campaign) and Sheldon Adelson of the Las Vegas Sands. FDD’s president is Clifford May who once upon a time was an ace reporter and Bush supporter for the now defunct Rocky Mountain News before he moved on national prominence. Colorado’s gain (his leaving Denver) was Washington’s loss. In one year, 2011, FDD received $ 19 million in contributions from Marcus, Singer and Adelson alone. One of their main goals is the overthrow of the Iranian government but most over the past year they have worked assiduously for regime change in Syria. There are other neo-con think tanks like this that are active in Washington. Why Obama decided to listen to these voices now is a question that still needs addressing. But it is the McCains and Clifford Mays of the world that have gotten Obama’s ear – not the likes of Andrew Bacevich, former U.S. military officer, who has counseled caution in the aftermath of the U.S. failures in Iraq, Afghanistan.

McCain’s visit to Egypt and Syria marked a shift, a hardening in the Obama Administration’s policy, so much so that it seems certain that shortly thereafter – that is almost a month ago – the dynamics were put in motion for an air war against Syria. Everything since then has entailed providing the pretext and getting the media on board, neither particularly difficult to do these days. Concerning the pretext, the evidence is fast shaping up that it is little more than a classic false flag operation. We’ve seen all of this before. Let’s act now – what is needed is a pre-emptive peace strike. Let’s stop this war before it begins. The crisis in Syria will not be resolved militarily; only a political solution can end the violence. Time to get back to Geneva.

The post An Obama Attack on Syria Will Backfire (Part 1) appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

]]> 0 Thu, 29 Aug 2013 12:21:17 +0000 Russ Wellen

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

For once, the views of the New York Times editorial board and Focal Points align perfectly. From an op-ed today:

Despite the pumped-up threats and quickening military preparations, President Obama has yet to make a convincing legal or strategic case for military action against Syria.

Where, the author asked,

… is the proof that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria carried out the attack?… If the Obama administration has such evidence, it should make it public immediately. Given America’s gross failure in Iraq — when the Bush administration went to war over nonexistent nuclear weapons — the standard of proof is now unquestionably higher. We are also eager to hear the conclusions of the United Nations inspectors who are in Syria taking samples from victims and interviewing witnesses. 

Meanwhile, in a post Monday, I wrote of Syrian President Assad:

While it’s doubtful the opposition launched the attacks, one can’t help but wonder if, directly or by discrete suggestion, he delegated such authority to generals in order for him to maintain plausible deniability. If cornered, Assad can claim rogue elements of the military were responsible and, without immediately naming names, promise to investigate.

And yesterday I quoted David Gardner of the Financial Times (behind a pay wall) (emphasis added):

… many Syria-watchers are still puzzled as to why the Assads would do this. After months on the military ropes, they are on a roll. Since the fall of Qusair in June, and the recapture of the Homs Gap in an offensive led by Hizbollah, the Iran-allied, Lebanese Shia paramilitaries, Damascus has gone on the offensive. The overt commitment of Iran and Hizbollah, along with Russia’s diplomatic shield at the UN Security Council, shows that the Friends of the Assads deliver.

Curious what Gardner meant by the Assads in the plural, I joked that maybe he consulted with his wife Asma on chemical-weapons attacks. But now I see he must have meant the president’s brother. Bloomberg News reported yesterday:

Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of the president, commands the regime’s Republican Guard and controls the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division, an elite unit that the opposition says launched the Aug. 21 attack on the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

The use of chemical weapons may have been a brash action by Maher al-Assad rather than a strategic decision by the president, according to the UN official, who asked not to be named.

Yesterday we asked Bomb What Exactly in Syria? As bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would release radiation, wouldn’t bombing Syria’s checmical weapons facilities also release atmospheric hounds of hell. Mapping potential sites for bombing at Foreign Policy, John Reed wrote:

Some worry that hitting chemical weapons depots or factories may hurt or kill large numbers of innocents if the chemicals are released into the air by exploding missiles. … [Chris Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War] says he’s not particularly worried about chemical collateral damage; the worst of the weapons, like sarin, are stored in “binary” format, with their chemical pre-cursors in separate units. … “There may be some collateral damage [in a strike destroying such weapons], but far less than use of chemical weapons” by the Assad regime.

Big however:

Even if the number of people killed by the release of toxins from a U.S. airstrike is relatively small — and relatively might be the key word here — compared to the numbers who die when Assad uses his chemical weapons, the PR catastrophe that would result from Syrian civilians dying from a U.S. airstrike meant to protect them from chemical weapons would be pretty awful.

In the end, it’s tough to argue with this prescription from the Times op-ed:

Ideally, once presented with evidence, the council would condemn Mr. Assad, impose a ban on arms shipments to Syria (including materials used to make chemical weapons, which the regime is trying to buy on the open market) and send Mr. Assad’s name to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.

Most importantly

Mr. Assad’s Russia and Chinese enablers are the ones most able to stop his brutality.


The post The Obama Administration’s Hollow Case for Striking Syria appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

]]> 0 Wed, 28 Aug 2013 12:44:39 +0000 Russ Wellen

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

On Monday at Focal Points, I wrote about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad invoking logic to refute the charges that his government carried out chemical-weapon attacks. He pointed out in an interview with Izvestia reported on by the New York Times that

… government troops would have risked killing their own forces if they had used chemical weapons. “This contradicts elementary logic,” news reports quoted him as saying. It is “not us but our enemies who are using chemical weapons,” he said, referring to antigovernment rebels as “the terrorists.”

I wrote:

Bearing in mind that just because he invokes logic doesn’t necessarily mean Assad actually isn’t capable of acting irrationally. But, remember, the area subjected to clouds of poison gas was the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, also his home. Though I’m unfamiliar with drift patterns of poison gas, putting Damascus, himself, and his family in possible harm’s way would make him obstinate to the nth degree, not to mention self-destructive, on top of irrational. We’re talking about Hitler territory.

In the same vein, at Reuters, Alexandra Hudson wrote on Tuesday, bearing in mind that the PYD has cooperated with the Assad regime in the past:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would not be “so stupid” as to use chemical weapons close to Damascus, the leader of the country’s largest Kurdish group said.

Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said he doubted the Syrian president would resort to using such weapons when he felt he had the upper hand in the country’s civil war.

… “The regime in Syria … has chemical weapons, but they wouldn’t use them around Damascus, 5 km from the (U.N.) committee which is investigating chemical weapons. Of course they are not so stupid as to do so,” Muslim told Reuters.

At the time of the incident, U.N. experts were already in Syria to investigate three previous alleged chemical attacks dating from months ago.

Besides the attacks’ proximity to inspectors, Syrian troops, and Damascus, talk of Western military intervention had been quieting down, especially with the momentum on the side of the Syrian military. David Gardner of the Financial Times (behind a pay wall) adds to the discussion about Assad’s logic.

… many Syria-watchers are still puzzled as to why the Assads would do this. After months on the military ropes, they are on a roll. Since the fall of Qusair in June, and the recapture of the Homs Gap in an offensive led by Hizbollah, the Iran-allied, Lebanese Shia paramilitaries, Damascus has gone on the offensive. The overt commitment of Iran and Hizbollah, along with Russia’s diplomatic shield at the UN Security Council, shows that the Friends of the Assads deliver.


Logic suggests it would be insane for the regime to fire chemical shells across its beleaguered capital just as UN chemical weapons inspectors arrived in Damascus. But whose logic is operating here? By dismissing rebel charges that loyalist forces committed this war crime as “illogical”, the Assads merely repeat the standard cui bono argument they have wheeled out after almost every atrocity and assassination they have perpetrated over the past four decades: how could it be them if they are the ones who would obviously be blamed?

Notie how Gardner refers refers to the “Assads,” instead of just “Assad.” Maybe Assad’s wife Asma calls the shots when it comes to chemical-weapon attacks. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Still, as I wrote Monday:

While it’s doubtful the opposition launched the attacks, one can’t help but wonder if, directly or by discrete suggestion, he delegated such authority to generals in order for him to maintain plausible deniability. If cornered, Assad can claim rogue elements of the military were responsible and, without immediately naming names, promise to investigate.

Meanwhile, at IPS, Gareth Porter reports:

After initially insisting that Syria give United Nations investigators unimpeded access to the site of an alleged nerve gas attack, the administration of President Barack Obama reversed its position on Sunday and tried unsuccessfully to get the U.N. to call off its investigation.

The administration’s reversal, which came within hours of the deal reached between Syria and the U.N., was reported by the Wall Street Journal Monday and effectively confirmed by a State Department spokesperson later that day.

In his press appearance Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry, who intervened with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to call off the investigation, dismissed the U.N. investigation as coming too late to obtain valid evidence on the attack that Syrian opposition sources claimed killed as many 1,300 people.


Specialists on chemical weapons also suggested in interviews with IPS that the U.N. investigating team, under a highly regarded Swedish specialist Ake Sellstom and including several experts borrowed from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, should be able to either confirm or disprove the charge of an attack with nerve or another chemical weapon within a matter of days.

“The sudden reversal and overt hostility toward the U.N. investigation,” Porter writes, “suggests that the administration sees the U.N. as hindering its plans for an attack.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Porter again.

The administration’s effort to discredit the investigation recalls the George W. Bush administration’s rejection of the position of U.N. inspectors in 2002 and 2003 after they found no evidence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the administration’s refusal to give inspectors more time to fully rule out the existence of an active Iraqi WMD programme.

Not to mention those who only rattle the saber more loudly now that Iran has elected a president whose extending the olive branch to the West. When it comes to logic, though, war has its own and human life is not part of its calculus.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

The post Is Assad a Rational Actor? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

]]> 0 Wed, 28 Aug 2013 10:30:26 +0000 David Wildman and Phyllis Bennis


(osipowa / Flickr)

The threat of a reckless, dangerous, and illegal US or US-led assault on Syria is looking closer than ever.

The US government has been divided over the Syria crisis since it began. Some, especially in the Pentagon and some of the intelligence agencies, said direct military intervention would be dangerous and would accomplish nothing. Others, especially in Congress and some in the State Department, have demanded military attacks, even regime change, against the Syrian leadership, even before anyone made allegations of chemical weapons. The Obama administration has been divided too, with President Obama seemingly opposed to any US escalation. The American people are not divided—60% are against intervening in Syria’s civil war even if chemical weapons were involved.

But the situation is changing rapidly, and the Obama administration appears to be moving closer to direct military intervention. That would make the dire situation in Syria inestimably worse.

The attack that killed so many civilians, including many children, last Wednesday may well have been from a chemical weapon. Doctors Without Borders, in touch with local hospitals they support, said that while the symptoms “strongly indicate” that thousands of patients were exposed to a neurotoxic agent, they “can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack.” The United Nations chemical weapons inspection team already in Syria to investigate earlier claims was granted permission by the government to visit the new site today; they have not yet reported any findings.

No one knows yet what actually happened, other than a horrific attack on civilians, many of whom died. No one has yet made public any evidence of what killed them, or who may responsible. All attacks on civilians are war crimes—regardless of whether they are carried out by the Syrian army, rebel militias, or US cruise missiles.

And yet the calls, the demands, the assumptions of a looming US attack on Syria are rising. NBC News reported that the US had “very little doubt” that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. The Wall Street Journal quoted an anonymous “senior defense official” who said the military strikes being considered “would be conducted from ships in the Eastern Mediterranean using long-range missiles, without using manned aircraft. ‘You do not need basing. You do not need over-flight. You don’t need to worry about defenses.”

Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim that a chemical attack was “undeniable,” we still don’t know for sure that it was a chemical weapon, and we certainly don’t know who did it. Kerry spoke this afternoon, calling the attack a “moral obscenity.” If it was a chemical attack, as appears likely, it certainly is just that. So far in this war, over 100,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes—aren’t all of those moral obscenities?

Even If

Kerry seems to believe that this moral obscenity requires military action in response. Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain said so earlier. But he’s wrong. It’s likely that it was a chemical agent of some sort that led to mass sickness and many deaths in the Damascus suburb. And maybe it was the Syrian regime that was responsible for it. The questions that would then need to be asked, the questions “even if,” have to start with “so what should we do?”

Does anyone really believe that a military strike on an alleged chemical weapons factory would help the Syrian people, would save any lives, would help bring an end to this horrific civil war? What’s the best we could hope for, that a cruise missile strike would actually succeed, would accurately find its target, and explode a warehouse full of chemical agents into airborne clouds of death?

Illegal Even If

The US government is creating a false dichotomy—it’s either a military strike, or we let them get away with it. No one is talking about any other kind of international accountability, nothing like the International Criminal Court. Last month, the White House “law group” noted that arming the rebels might violate international law. Do they think a cruise missile strike is okay? We heard President Obama a couple of days ago refer to international law. He said “if the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it … and those are considerations that we have to take into account.”

But what we’re hearing now is that the model under consideration for a US military strike on Syria would be that of Kosovo. Remember that one, back in 1999, at the end of the Bosnia war? That time, knowing it was impossible to get Security Council agreement for an air war against Serbia over the disputed enclave of Kosovo, the US and its allies simply announced that they would get their international permission slip somewhere else. That would be the NATO high command. What a surprise, the NATO generals agreed with their respective presidents and prime ministers, and said sure, we think it’s a great idea. The problem is, the UN Charter is very clear on what constitutes a legal use of military force—and permission from NATO isn’t on that very short list. If the Security Council does not say yes, and there is no legal claim of immediate self-defense (which even the US isn’t claiming regarding Syria), any use or threat of use of military force is illegal. Period. Full stop. Claiming that NATO or someone else said it was okay isn’t part of international law—the air war was illegal in Kosovo, and it would be illegal in Syria.

Cui Bono….

But let’s go back a minute. Let’s remember that we don’t know for sure that it was a chemical weapon. We don’t know for sure that it was a weapon at all. Crucially, let’s remember we don’t have any evidence of who might have used such a weapon. So then what do we ask? Maybe we start with the age old question, cui bono? Who benefits?

It’s easier to say who loses—the Syrian people, most importantly the victims and their families. Whole communities are being decimated. (We shouldn’t forget that Americans will pay a price too—a new war will result in more military spending. That will create pressure on Congress to cut domestic spending even further, cutting vital social programs even more.)

But who benefits is a little more complicated.

It’s certainly not impossible that the Syrian regime, known to have had a chemical weapons arsenal, used such a weapon. If so, why? Despite remaining under pressure from sanctions and facing increasing international isolation, Damascus has been seeing some success on the battlefield. It’s certainly possible a mid-level Syrian officer, worried about some past defeat and desperately afraid of being held accountable for it, might have chosen to use such a weapon to gain a gruesome battlefield victory despite the increase in the threat of direct military intervention. But it is very unlikely the regime’s leadership would have made such a choice. Not because they “wouldn’t kill their own people,” they’ve been doing just that. But because they stood to lose far more than any potential gain. It’s not impossible. But as brutal as this regime is, it isn’t crazy. It’s unlikely.

Then there’s the other side, the diverse opposition whose strongest fighters are those claiming allegiance to al Qaeda and similar extremist organizations. Those who benefit from this attack, are those eager for greater US and western military intervention against the Assad regime in Damascus. Further, al Qaeda and its offshoots have always been eager to get the US military—troops, warplanes, ships, bases, whatever—into their territory. It makes it so much easier to attack them there. Politically it remains what US counter-intelligence agents long ago called a “recruitment tool” for al Qaeda. They loved the Iraq war for that reason. They would love the Syrian war all the more if US targets were brought in. All the debate about “red lines,” the domestic and international political pressure to “do something,” the threats to the UN inspectors on the ground—who inside Syria do we think is cheering that on?

(And as for the opposition’s capacity and/or willingness to use such weapons…we should also remember that the opposition includes some defectors. Who knows what skills and weapons access they brought with them? And do we really doubt that al Qaeda wanna-be extremists, many of them not even Syrians, would hesitate to kill civilians in a suburb of Damascus?)

UN Inspectors Pulled Out?
The most dangerous signal of US intentions may be the call for the United Nations weapons inspectors to withdraw. To his credit, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rejected the Obama administration’s call, and kept the inspection team in place, to do its work. On the eve of the war in Iraq, 48 hours before US warplanes began their assault on Baghdad, George W. Bush issued an even more direct demand for UN weapons inspectors and humanitarian workers to be withdrawn. Then Secretary-General Kofi Annan pulled his team out, understandably afraid for their lives. But what if those scores of UN staffers had been given the choice to stay? Might the risk of killing dozens, scores of UN international staff, have made the US pause for just a moment before beginning its assault? Maybe those staffers would have changed history. This time around, like before, diplomacy rather than military action is the only way to enable the UN inspectors to continue their work to find the truth.

Let’s be clear. Any US military attack, cruise missiles or anything else, will not be to protect civilians—it will mean taking sides once again in a bloody, complicated civil war. And al Qaeda would be very pleased.

This time, maybe the Obama administration isn’t about to launch cruise missiles against Syria. Maybe there’s still time to prevent it. Right now, those risking their lives on the ground to help the Syrian people are the UN inspectors. If the US is really concerned about their safety, and recognizes the legitimacy of UN inspectors, the Obama administration should immediately engage with the UN leadership and with the Syrian, Russian and other relevant governments to insure their safety while they continue their crucial efforts. Cruise missiles will make that work impossible. What’s needed now is tough diplomacy, not politically-motivated military strikes that will make a horrific war even worse.


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Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. 3 Tue, 27 Aug 2013 14:38:54 +0000 Russ Wellen

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Some of us have wondered why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would drop tear gas in the suburbs of the seat of his government and his own home, Damascus. After all, the wind could blow the gas into his backyard. Nor did it make sense in light of how calls for intervention had recently died down. As Assad himself pointed out in an interview with Izvestia reported on by the New York Times:

… government troops would have risked killing their own forces if they had used chemical weapons. “This contradicts elementary logic,” news reports quoted him as saying.

Nevertheless, today the New York Times reported:

In the coming days, officials said, the nation’s intelligence agencies will disclose information to bolster their case that chemical weapons were used by Mr. Assad’s forces. The information could include so-called signals intelligence — intercepted radio or telephone calls between Syrian military commanders.

If that’s a smoking gun to the administration, we need to be let in on that information immediately since

Administration officials said that although President Obama had not made a final decision on military action, he was likely to order a limited military operation — cruise missiles launched from American destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea at military targets in Syria, for example — and not a sustained air campaign intended to topple Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, or to fundamentally alter the nature of the conflict on the ground.

Best case scenario: Assad makes some conciliatory gesture to the West to protect his people from getting hurt. But he doesn’t seem to care about them anymore than the Obama administration does. From the Department of Thank Goodness for Small Favors, at least the administration seems to have its eye on military targets, not suspected chemical-weapons depots. Apparently, though, no such mercy would be shown Iran in the event we or Israel decided to attack: its nuclear-energy facilities would be targeted, releasing devastating radiation on the surrounding countryside.

The post Bomb What Exactly in Syria? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

]]> 0 Tue, 27 Aug 2013 13:38:00 +0000 Conn Hallinan


(Kurdistan Photo / Flickr)

For almost a century, the Kurds—one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without its own state—have been deceived and double-crossed, their language and culture suppressed, their villages burned and bombed, and their people scattered. But because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Syrian civil war, and Turkish politics, they have been suddenly transformed from pawn to major player in a pivotal part of the Middle East.

The Kurds—who speak a language distantly related to Farsi, the dominant language of Iran—straddle the borders of northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran, and constitute a local majority in parts of eastern and southern Turkey. At between 25 and 30 million strong, they have long yearned to establish their own state. Now, with their traditional foes weakened by invasion, civil war, and political discord, the Kurds are suddenly in the catbird’s seat.

But in the Middle East that can be a very tricky place to dwell.

The Kurds’ current ascent began when the U.S. established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. When the Americans invaded and overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds saw their opportunity: they seized three oil-rich northern provinces, set up a parliament, established a capital at Erbil, and mobilized their formidable militia, the Peshmerga.  Over the past decade, the Kurdish region has gone from one of the poorest regions in Iraq to one of the most affluent, fueled in the main by energy sales to Turkey and Iran.

It is an astounding turn of fate.

Twenty-nine years ago the Turkish government was burning Kurdish villages and scattering refugees throughout the region. Some 45,000 people—mostly Kurds— lost their lives in that long-running conflict. Today, Turkey is negotiating with its traditional nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and trying to cut a peace deal that would deliver Kurdish support to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push to amend Turkey’s constitution and give himself another decade in power.

In 1988, Saddam Hussein dropped poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing between 3,000 and 5,000 people. Today, the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki may be outraged by the Kurds’ seizure of oil assets, but the Baghdad regime is so preoccupied by a sectarian-led bombing campaign against Shiite communities that it is in no position to do more than protest. Last November, the Maliki government backed away from a potential showdown with the Peshmerga in the northern town of Tuz Khurmatu.

Fifty years ago the Syrian government stripped citizenship rights from 20 percent of its Kurdish minority—Kurds make up about 10 percent of that country’s population—creating between 300,000 and 500,000 stateless people. Today, Syria’s Kurdish regions are largely independent because the Damascus regime, locked in a life and death struggle with foreign and domestic insurgents, has abandoned the northern and eastern parts of the country.

Only in Iran are Kurds in much the same situation they were a decade ago, but with Tehran’s energy focused on its worsening economic situation and avoiding a confrontation with the United States over its nuclear program, that too could change.

Fragile Opportunities

In short, are the Kurds’ stars finally coming into alignment?

Maybe and maybe not. The Kurds’ current opportunities are fragile, relying on the transitory needs or current disarray of their traditional foes, the central governments of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Turkey is a case in point.

Erdogan needs the votes of Kurdish parliamentarians to put a new constitution up for a referendum in time for the 2014 elections. Ending the conflict with the Kurds could also boost Turkey’s application for European Union membership and burnish Ankara’s regional leadership credentials. The latter have been tarnished by Erdogan’s recent missteps, including his unpopular support for the Syrian insurgents and his increasingly authoritarian internal policies.

Most Kurds would like to end the fighting as well, but that will require concessions by the Erdogan government on the issues of parliamentary representation and the right of Kurds to educate their children in their own language.

But Erdogan has balked at these two demands, and the Kurds are growing impatient. PKK leader Cemil Bayik recently warned that “September 1 is the deadline” for a deal and a failure to reach an agreement by then “will be understood that the aim [of the Turkish government] is not a solution.” Given the long history of animosity, it would not take much to unravel peace talks between the two parties.

Syria’s Kurds have threaded a hazardous path between their desire for autonomy—some would like full independence—and not taking sides in the current civil war. Indeed, the fighting going on in northern and eastern Syria is not between the insurgents and the Assad government, but between the Kurdish Democratic Union and the combined forces of the extremist al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Most of Syria’s oil reserves are in the Kurdish region and control of them would provide a financial base for whatever side emerges victorious.

The Assad regime may have abandoned the north, but Damascus recently has made headway against the insurgency, gains greatly aided by infighting among the opposition. So far the war is a stalemate, but it might not stay that way forever. Even Syrians opposed to the Assad government are tired of the fighting, and most have no love for the sectarian groups that have increasingly taken over the war against the Damascus regime. In short, the current autonomy of Syria’s Kurds may be a fleeting thing.

Of course, it is possible that the Syrian Kurds might cut a deal with Assad: help drive the insurgents out of the area—maybe in alliance with the Iraqi Kurds—in exchange for greater autonomy. That would enrage both the Turks and the Maliki government, but it is not clear either could do much about it.

Erdogan’s support for the Syrian insurgents is widely unpopular in Turkey, and any direct intervention by the Turks to block autonomy for Syria’s Kurds would put Ankara in the middle of a civil war. With an election looming next year, that is not a move Erdogan wants to make. As for Iraq, thanks to the U.S.-led dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army, Baghdad doesn’t have the capabilities to take on the Peshmerga at this point.

What will finally emerge is hard to predict, except that a return to the past seems unlikely. Iraq’s Kurds can only be dislodged by a major invasion from Turkey in cooperation with the Baghdad government. Given that Kurdish oil and gas are increasingly important to the Turkish economy, and that any invasion would be costly, why would Ankara do that?

And cooperation between Baghdad and Ankara has been soured by Turkey’s willingness to ignore Baghdad’s protests over its exploitation of Kurdish-controlled (but Iraqi-owned) oil and Turkish support for the Sunni extremists trying to overthrow Assad. Those same extremists are massacring Shiite supporters of the Maliki government in Basra, Baghdad, and Karbala.

Turkey’s Kurds—between 20 and 25 million, the largest Kurdish concentration in the world—are on a knife’s edge. There is little doubt that the average Turkish Kurd wants the long-running conflict to end, as do the Turks as well. But Erdogan is dragging his feet on the key peace issues, and the PKK may decide it is time to pick up the gun again and return to the old Kurdish adage: trust only the mountains.

Simple Solutions

The solution to all this is not all that difficult.

For Turkey, granting Kurdish language rights and cultural autonomy, and reducing the minimum percentage of votes to serve in the Turkish parliament from its current 10 percent, would probably do the job.

For Syria, the formula for peace would be much the same, with the added move of restoring citizenship to almost half a million now stateless Kurds. But that is only likely to happen after a ceasefire and a political settlement of the civil war.

The Iraqi government will have to bite the bullet, recognize that an autonomous Kurdish area is a reality, and work out a deal to share oil and gas revenue.

As long as Iran is faced with an attack by the United States or Israel, its Kurds will be out in the cold. Washington and its allies should keep in mind that sanctions and threats of war make any peaceful resolution of long-standing grievances for Iran’s minorities—which also include Azeris, Baluchs, and Arabs—impossible. If the United States is truly concerned about minorities in Iran, it should find a way to negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear program.

But the Iranian government, too, would do well to seriously engage with its Kurdish population. Autonomy for the Kurds is out of the bag and not about to go back in, regardless of what the final outcomes in Syria and Turkey are. Sooner or later, Iran will have to confront the same decision that governments in Damascus, Ankara, and Baghdad now face: recognition and autonomy, or war and instability.

The post The Kurdish Moment: Opportunity and Peril appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.


Afghanistan: Is It Really the End Game?Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan can be read at and 0 Mon, 26 Aug 2013 14:25:31 +0000 Cindy Hwang


NYU Abu Dhabi (Yuwen Memon / Flickr)

This August, two prominent American liberal arts institutions opened educational outposts in decidedly non-liberal countries. The first is NYU Shanghai, the third addition to NYU’s self-proclaimed “Global Network University,” which also includes the main campus in New York and a “portal campus” in Abu Dhabi. The other is Yale-NUS, a liberal arts college operated jointly by Yale and the National University of Singapore. Although not quite a branch campus like NYU Shanghai, Yale-NUS is the first offsite college bearing Yale’s name that the Ivy League university has decided to launch in its 300-year history.

Like NYU Abu Dhabi and other forerunners in this relatively new phenomenon of transnational education, NYU Shanghai and Yale-NUS have provoked considerable backlash. But perhaps because of the stature accorded to their mother institutions, and the manner in which these satellites were conceived and executed, the two campuses have attracted particular scrutiny. Many educators and students have raised concerns over the institutions’ ability to uphold academic freedom in oppressive environments, the lack of faculty involvement in the decision-making process, the quality of education on satellite campuses, and the overextension of faculty resources.

Troubling developments already emerged this summer, even before students in the inaugural classes stepped onto their brand-new campuses. This past June, NYU made headlines when Chen Guangcheng, the trailblazing Chinese human rights activist who was completing a fellowship at NYU, claimed that the university was forcing him to leave due to pressure from the Chinese government. Chen’s assertions remain unverifiable, but they certainly raise important questions about the nature of NYU’s relationship with the Chinese government.

Last summer, Yale-NUS president Pericles Lewis revealed that, in accordance with Singaporean law, students would not be allowed to hold political protests or form campus organizations affiliated with current political parties in Singapore. In response, Human Rights Watch chided Yale for “betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students.” Faculty expressed vehement disapproval as well. Seyla Benhabib and Christopher Miller, Yale professors who have been vocal in their opposition to Yale-NUS, penned an op-ed in the Yale Daily News pointing out that “an institution bearing Yale’s name is [now officially] in the business of restricting the rights of students.”

However, academic freedom is not the only issue that has alarmed Yale and NYU faculty members. Many of them have been frustrated by their exclusion from deliberations surrounding their universities’ expansion plans, which have been carried out almost entirely by administrators. Neither faculty had a chance to formally debate or vote on the overseas ventures before they were finalized, but both are now expected to support and equip the satellite campuses on an ad hoc basis.

It comes as no surprise, then, that faculty members have taken sharp measures to convey their displeasure with the manner in which their university administrators have pursued this global expansion. This past March, the faculty of NYU’s largest school, the College of Arts and Science, held a vote of no confidence in University President John Sexton, who has spearheaded an aggressive campaign to expand NYU both in New York and abroad, in addition to running an increasingly corporate-style, profit-seeking administration. The majority of eligible Arts and Science professors voted, with slightly over half voting in favor of a declaration of no-confidence.

Similarly, in April 2012, Yale College faculty members passed a resolution that expressed concern “regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore” and urged Yale-NUS to uphold the principles of non-discrimination and political freedom on campus. Of the 200 or so participants at the faculty meeting, over half voted in favor of the resolution, which was tantamount to a symbolic vote of no confidence. Yale administrators have claimed that because Yale-NUS will grant NUS rather than Yale College degrees, the venture did not require faculty approval. But many faculty members maintain that, as Professor Victor Bers put it, “the name ‘Yale-NUS’ is sufficient to justify the formal involvement of the Yale College Faculty.”

With these dramatic displays of faculty discontent in mind—which have done nothing to change the fact that NYU Shanghai and Yale-NUS opened their doors this fall, as scheduled—it is worth taking a step back and looking at the broader phenomenon of international branch campuses. Why are some Western universities so eager to open outposts in foreign countries, including authoritarian ones? Is it possible to export the liberal arts to places that restrict civil liberties? And finally, do offshore campuses have redeeming qualities that outweigh the ethical risks of operating in authoritarian countries?

Push and Pull

The growth of international branch campuses is very much a product of our world’s rapid compression in the past two decades, which has left few landscapes unaltered—including that of higher education.  As a March 2013 Newsweek article mentioned, there are now some 200 international branch campuses, a 23-percent increase from just three years ago, and 37 more such campuses are expected to open within the next two years. According to Jason Lane, the director of educational studies and a senior fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the desire to establish overseas campuses has been driven primarily by the pursuit of global prestige, as it attracts more students, more revenue, and more press. “For universities, prestige tends to be the coin of the realm,” he noted.

Of course, another major factor has been the millions of dollars in foreign subsidies and additional tuition that satellite campuses often bring. At a time when American universities face falling endowments, declining public and private grants, and debt-ridden students, externally bankrolled branch campuses seem like a particularly attractive option. NYU’s Shanghai campus is heavily subsidized by the local government, and its Abu Dhabi campus is funded entirely by the city’s ruling family, which gave the university an initial $ 50-million donation. Likewise, Yale has had no part in financing Yale-NUS, which is largely funded by the Singaporean government, in addition to private contributions.

There is also a significant measure of idealism behind the push for branch campuses. Many universities wish to refashion themselves as globally connected, 21st-century institutions that prepare their students to become “citizens of this world”—as the official website of NYU’s Global Network University states—in addition to promoting cross-cultural exchanges and bringing the liberal arts to places where they aren’t traditionally taught. Although some have criticized them for having imperialistic undertones, these aspirations all certainly sound noble enough. They also complement and lend legitimacy to the financial incentives behind branch campuses—which will never be publicly admitted, much less marketed.

It is important to recognize, however, that the proliferation of overseas campuses has largely resulted from mutually reinforcing, push-and-pull processes: host countries, which similarly covet global prestige, typically have as much interest at stake as the universities that open campuses there. Importing elite academic institutions boosts the domestic development and cultural clout of the host country, legitimizing it as a place worthy of international attention and investment. At the same time, the rapid growth of the middle class in developing countries is driving up demand for foreign, name-brand degrees. Education analysts estimate that there could be as many as 200 million students enrolled in branch campuses by 2020, up from the 110 to 115 million currently participating in those ventures.

Qatar is in the process of constructing Education City, a massive, $ 33-billion complex that is 20 years in the making and set to be completed in 2016. Several American institutions, including Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, and Georgetown, currently operate all-expenses-paid branch campuses there, courtesy of a foundation managed by the ruling al-Thani family. Likewise, Dubai has established educational hubs called Knowledge Village and International Academic City, which are home to dozens of overseas academic institutions. And then there’s Singapore, which launched an ambitious educational strategy in 2002 to transform itself into a “global schoolhouse,” complete with multiple offshore campuses and 150,000 international students. Today, over a dozen universities operate branch campuses in Singapore, and they were recently joined by the collaboratively run Yale-NUS College.

The Hand That Feeds

However, accepting vast sums of money from foreign governments, especially authoritarian ones, puts liberal arts universities in a morally compromising situation. Branch campuses often negotiate special agreements with their host countries to permit a greater degree of political speech on campus than on the street. But if they receive generous foreign subsidies, they tend to be more compliant, and less likely to criticize the authoritarian behavior of their host country. Guarantees of academic freedom and freedom of expression on campuses located in oppressive settings are dubious at best and disingenuous at worst.

It’s hard to take Yale-NUS’s stated commitment to “free expression of ideas in all forms”—which it calls a “cornerstone of our institution”—seriously when former University President Richard Levin has acknowledged that Yale initiated its partnership with the NUS in “full awareness that national laws concerning freedom of expression would place constraints on the civic and political behavior of students and faculty.” One of those constraints, of course, is the campus ban on political protests and student chapters of existing political parties. It remains to be seen what other activities might be restricted when those laws are actually enforced on campus.

By formally cooperating with host governments to limit individual expression on campus, universities are effectively violating their own academic principles. Like Yale-NUS, NYU Abu Dhabi bans students from demonstrating on campus—unless they have first obtained a permit from government officials.  In another instance, the director of graduate programs at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Malaysia acknowledged that a specific provision in his contract prohibits him from saying anything that might be offensive to the government.

Operating liberal arts campuses in authoritarian countries also increases the likelihood that universities will become entangled in “human rights imbroglios,” as Andrew Ross, a professor at NYU and president of its American Association for University Professors chapter, put it. “Regardless of whether these [incidents] occur within or around the offshore campuses, the fallout still gets associated with the university in question,” he observed. In November 2011, a professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne’s branch campus in Abu Dhabi was imprisoned for several months after calling for democratic reforms in the Emirates. Both the Sorbonne and NYU Abu Dhabi refused to comment publicly on the incident, perhaps because they feared jeopardizing their favorable financial arrangements with the government.

Yale-NUS claims that on its campus, “there are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated.” Yet in an environment where civil liberties are restricted and their protection on campus remains uncertain, a culture of self-censorship inevitably emerges. Perhaps the greatest loss to academic freedom on offshore campuses, then, comes in the form of questions that are never asked, and answers that are never discussed and debated. Both Ross and Lane, the Rockefeller Institute educational studies director, agree that self-censorship is a pervasive problem among those who teach and study at overseas campuses in authoritarian countries. Some professors, on the other hand, stress the need to be circumspect when dealing with issues that are considered delicate in authoritarian countries. But the line between cultural sensitivity and self-censorship is a thin one, and there may come a point when the former actually inhibits free and open inquiry.

The Spoils of Compromise

Nevertheless, many contend that the value overseas branch campuses bring to both their mother institutions and host countries offsets the potential risks to academic freedom. For one thing, the generous funding that universities receive from foreign governments can be used to expand academic departments, conduct cutting-edge research, create faculty-exchange programs, and organize academic conferences. To date, NYU Abu Dhabi has awarded nearly $ 40 million in grants for local research centers and initiatives.

Probably the most common justification for opening branch campuses in nondemocratic settings is that their presence will have a positive, liberalizing impact on their host countries. As Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis has insisted, “Progress depends on continued engagement and dialogue rather than retreat or insularity.” By importing the liberal arts, critical thinking, and classroom debate to the Middle East and Asia—where educational institutions tend to focus on science and technology—Western universities hope to push cultural attitudes in a more progressive direction and, more broadly speaking, improve access to higher education in developing countries.

Even those who feel ambivalent about branch campuses acknowledge that they can exert a positive influence. “What I’ve seen on the ground is that a combination of knowledge spillover, critical thinking, and institutions trying to lead by example by pushing the edges helps educate the next set of leaders [in the host] country,” said Lane, who has visited and studied numerous offshore campuses. Ross, who has spoken very critically of NYU’s overseas ventures, agrees that it’s possible for them to have a liberalizing effect: he noted that a recent student from Abu Dhabi confessed she had never really noticed the vast underclass of migrant workers in her country until she had taken several classes at NYU’s branch campus there.

So overseas branch campuses, for all their foibles, are certainly not without some benefits. It is up to universities to decide whether or not they are willing to compromise their fundamental values and institutional missions in exchange for those benefits—something Lane describes as a “balancing act.” It should be apparent enough, however, that it is virtually impossible for overseas branches to accept funding from authoritarian regimes while still upholding academic freedom as it exists on their home campuses. For universities to pretend otherwise is quixotic, if not misleading.

Unfortunately, operating liberal arts institutions in oppressive countries invites inescapable ethical quandaries that many universities too often dismiss or even ignore. The fact that this trade-off is so fraught with moral risk is exactly why faculty and student engagement with, and support for, these ventures—what Lane calls “campus buy-in”—is so essential. It is something that NYU’s branch campuses and Yale-NUS have all noticeably lacked, due to skewed, top-down administrations. Without question, these ventures would have looked and felt very different if faculty had played a more active role.

As more universities look to expand their presence across the globe, they should look to NYU and Yale as lessons in the importance of shared governance—and the risks associated with academic freedom. For all we know, the future of higher education could depend on it.

The post Exporting the Ivory Tower appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.


Cindy Hwang is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. 0 Mon, 26 Aug 2013 12:53:12 +0000 Russ Wellen

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Syrian President Assad insists that the apparent chemical-weapon attacks that have left upwards of 1,000 people dead in his country were committed by “terrorists,” as he calls the opposition. That’s his story and Russia and Syria are sticking to it.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that they were carried out “likely with high-level approval from the government of President Bashar al-Assad, according to American and European security sources.”

But, as Assad himself points out in an interview with Izvestia reported on by the New York Times:

… government troops would have risked killing their own forces if they had used chemical weapons. “This contradicts elementary logic,” news reports quoted him as saying. It is “not us but our enemies who are using chemical weapons,” he said, referring to antigovernment rebels as “the terrorists.”

Bearing in mind that just because he invokes logic doesn’t necessarily mean Assad actually isn’t capable of acting irrationally. But remember the area subjected to clouds of poison gas was the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, also his home. Though I’m unfamiliar with drift patterns of poison gas, putting Damascus, himself, and his famly in possible harm’s way would make him obstinate to the nth degree, not to mention self-destructive, on top of irrational. We’re talking about Hitler territory.

While it’s doubtful the opposition launched the attacks, one can’t help but wonder if, directly or by discrete suggestion, he delegated such authority to generals in order for him to maintain plausible deniability. If cornered, Assad can claim rogue elements of the military were responsible and, without immediately naming names, promise to investigate.

Assad finally agreed to admit U.N. inspectors, but that may be an empty gesture. The Wall Street Journal reported that

… the U.S. rebuffed Syria’s decision, saying the offer came too late to be credible. … “At this juncture, the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days,” [an] official added.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is increasingly drawn to an armed attack. As for actually ridding Syria of its chemical weapons, as with Iran’s nuclear complex, it’s, well, complex. In November of last year, David Sanger and Eric Schmitt reported for the Times:

The Pentagon has told the Obama administration that any military effort to seize Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons would require upward of 75,000 troops.

Complicating it further was the discovery that Hezbollah fighters have been training near some of Syria’s chemical-weapons depots. Said one senior American official: “… the fear these weapons could fall into the wrong hands is our greatest concern.”

Though it’s difficult to imagine what could be wronger hands than Assad, the Syrian military, or the opposition.

Finally, from today’s Times report:

In the interview with Izvestia, Mr. Assad said, “America has taken part in many wars but could not once achieve its political goals for which the wars were started. Yes, it is true, the great powers can wage wars but can they win them?”

That might seem like a threat, necessarily empty because of the differential in military power between Syria and the United States. But, as we all well know, he’s not wrong. None of our large-scale interventions, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, can, in any sense of the term, be characterized as victories.

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