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Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

A drone over Homs

homs-drone-footage
[update below]

I’ve had three posts on the horror in Homs (here, here, and here), the first dating from exactly four years ago. The latest images of the unbelievable destruction visited upon that city—as has been visited upon so many towns and cities in Syria—is this one-minute video taken by a drone, broadcast on Russian television, and aired on Channel 4 in the UK (the original from the Russian TV network, which I saw a couple of days ago, appears to have been removed from its website; not surprisingly, one supposes, in view of Russia’s implication—indirect and now direct—in that destruction). If anyone is still wondering why Syrians are fleeing their country, watch the video.

UPDATE: Natalie Nougayrède—former editor-in-chief of Le Monde and its Russia correspondent for many years—has an opinion piece in The Guardian dated February 5th, “What happens next in Aleppo will shape Europe’s future.” The lede: “If there were any doubts about Vladimir Putin’s objectives in Syria, the recent Russian military escalation around this city must surely have set them aside.”

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Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia (Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia
(Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

[update below]

The headline story in last Friday’s Le Monde, which I am looking at on my desk as I write, is entitled “Après les attentats, Europe se referme” (After the attacks, Europe is closing the door), and with a big photo of refugees, presumably Syrian, in a dingy off the coast of Lesbos. The accompanying article, on “the return of fortress Europe,” quotes PM Manuel Valls—a member of the Socialist party and formally a man of the left (albeit its most rightist flank)—saying that Europe must make it clear that it cannot welcome as many migrants as it has up to now. And on the France 2 news yesterday evening was a report from Slovenia, which is putting up a barbed wire fence on its border with Croatia to keep migrants out, taking after Hungary, Slovakia, and other EU member countries sure to follow.

On some level I can comprehend the reflex of Slovenia et al (though not Manuel Valls; I don’t care if he’s prime minister but it is simply not acceptable for a leading personality of the French PS to talk the way he does on this issue). European states are indeed not prepared to confront the torrent of refugees and migrants flowing into the continent—even though Europe has successfully dealt with refugee/migrant flows of equal, indeed greater, importance in the recent past (Yugoslavia in the 1990s), not to mention after WWII. Hopefully the EU-Turkey agreement that’s being hammered out, which will presumably allow for an orderly processing of asylum requests of the refugees in Turkey, will work.

As for the bottom line—and there is no getting around this—the majority of Syrian refugees will eventually have to be settled in third countries, mostly in the West. The war in Syria will not end anytime soon and when/if it does, there will be nothing for Syrians who have left the country to go back to. Syria has been destroyed and is not likely to be rebuilt, at least not in the foreseeable future (e.g. see this report from Kobane). The destruction of Syria is not only physical—of cities (Aleppo, Homs) and towns—but also societal. Wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that have generated large cross border refugee flows have mainly involved rural people, who await the war’s end so they can return to their villages and farms and try to resume their lives. The great majority of Syrian refugees are urban and educated. Their livelihoods and social networks—not to mention extended families—are gone. And they can’t sit around in refugee camps in Lebanon, or live on handouts in Turkey, for years on end. They need to be able to work, continue with their education if they’re of that age, and rebuild their lives. Now. A few will be able to do so in the MENA region but the only part of the world where this can happen for most is the West (including Russia).

The United States could easily absorb a large number of Syrians—say, one hundred thousand, even more (why not?)—but obviously won’t in view of the current political climate. The post-Paris hysteria in the Republican party—leaders and base—over taking in any refugees leaves one speechless. As WaPo’s Alexandra Petri put it a couple of weeks ago, the reaction of Republicans is “past the point of parody.” The fear of Americans—mostly on the right—that even a tiny number of potential terrorists could be embedded in a refugee population is particularly puzzling in a country where just about anyone can legally constitute an arsenal of assault weapons and then carry out a massacre—in a movie theater, elementary school, college campus, family planning clinic, social services center, you name it—and with no reaction whatever from the political system—and precisely because those Americans who fear potential refugee terrorists are also the kind who are all for the unlimited right to acquire assault weapons and will vote against any candidate to elective office who thinks otherwise. Fearing jihadi terrorism in a country with practically no jihadis but where mass shootings happen every day of the week—and to which politicians respond with prayers and thoughts and that’s it—is, objectively speaking, irrational.

Continuing to speak objectively, Syrian refugees are “not the problem,” as Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch asserted in a piece in Foreign Policy. Americans who do think that refugees are a problem tend, however, not to look at websites like Foreign Policy. Addressing Americans on that side of the political spectrum, my friend Claire Berlinski, who blogs at Ricochet—the tagline of which is “Conservative conversation and community”—has a good, well-argued post, dated November 24th, “What’s in it for us? Why we should accept Syrian refugees.” Glancing at the comments thread, it doesn’t look like she convinced too many of her numerous refugee-skeptical readers.

One group that has been excellent on the refugee question is the libertarians, with whom I otherwise disagree 100% on a whole range of issues (notably the economy and social policy). E.g. Dave Bier, the director of immigration policy at the Niskanen Center in D.C.—a new libertarian think tank—has a fine piece (November 16th) on the “Six reasons to welcome Syrian refugees after Paris.” See as well the analysis (November 18th) by the Cato Institute’s immigration specialist Alex Nowrasteh, “Syrian refugees don’t pose a serious security threat.”

If one needs further convincing on the question, don’t miss historian Josh Zeitz’s explanation in Politico Magazine (November 22nd), “Yes, it’s fair to compare the plight of the Syrians to the plight of the Jews [and] here’s why.” Voilà.

UPDATE: Regarding my comment above on “mass shootings” in the US, Mother Jones’s Mark Follman has an important clarification in the NYT op-ed page, “How many mass shootings are there, really?”

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[update below]

It’s been a week since my reflections à chaud on the attacks. Like quite a few other people, I’ve been talking, reading, and thinking about little else since then. In the torrent of commentaries and analyses that have been posted online, some have been very good (I linked to a few in the previous post). But now my dear friend Adam Shatz has written the best so far, “Magical thinking about Isis,” in the London Review of Books. Adam and I had lengthy Skype discussions and email exchanges while he was writing the piece, during which he read me parts of it, so I knew what he was going to say. Having now read the published version I can report that it is even better than I expected (and I naturally knew it would be tops, as Adam’s writings invariably are). I have much to say on the subject myself, which I will do in due course. In the meantime, read Adam.

ADDENDUM: The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud—whom Adam profiled in the NYT Magazine last April—has an op-ed in the NYT (dated November 20th), “Saudi Arabia, an ISIS that has made it.” Pour l’info, Daoud is presently in the US and Canada on a book tour, speaking in New York City this past Monday to a packed house. The event, which Adam moderated, was a smashing success, so I heard.

UPDATE: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi—an Iraqi national, Oxford University graduate, Middle East Forum research fellow, and all-around smart person—has a must-read analysis (November 20th) in The Huffington Post, “The Paris attacks reflect intelligence failure — not a change in ISIS strategy.”

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Ansongo, Mali, 29 January 2013 (photo: Kambou Siakmbou Sia/AFP/Getty Images)

Ansongo, Mali, 29 January 2013 (photo: Kambou Siakmbou Sia/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s the title (in English) of an op-ed in Le Monde (issue dated 11-12 October), by Sciences Po international relations professor Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, and with which I entirely agree. For those too lazy to click on the link, here’s the full text, with notable passages on the Libya intervention in bold (a subject on which I have periodic contradictory exchanges) [UPDATE: Jeangène Vilmer has a piece with Olivier Schmitt—who teaches political science at the University of Southern Denmark—dated 14 October on the War on the Rocks blog, “Frogs of War: Explaining the new French military interventionism.”]

Avec le chaos en Libye, l’emprise de Daech en Irak et en Syrie, et la progression des talibans en Afghanistan, il est de bon ton de s’en prendre à l’interventionnisme occidental des quinze dernières années, dont les crises actuelles ne seraient que les contrecoups. Il est certainement nécessaire de tirer les leçons de nos échecs, mais il faut le faire sans céder à la simplification.

Premièrement, cet examen de conscience ne doit pas être une excuse pour amalgamer des interventions plus ou moins légales et légitimes : l’invasion de l’Irak (2003) reste un cas à part, une guerre de choix non autorisée par le Conseil de sécurité, contrairement aux autres.

Comparer, pour la décrédibiliser, l’intervention en Libye (2011) à cette agression illégale est faire fi de la résolution 1973 qui, contrairement à un préjugé répandu, n’a pas été dévoyée. Elle n’autorisait certes pas le changement de (more…)

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Syria’s lost generation

Syrian refugee collecting leftover food, Istanbul (photo credit: AFP)

Syrian refugee collecting leftover food, Istanbul (photo credit: AFP)

Istanbul-based journalist Sebnem Arsu has a feature article in Politico.eu on the dire situation of Syrian refugee children in the city—which, one may safely presume, is likewise elsewhere in Turkey as well, plus Lebanon and Jordan, not to mention in Syria itself—who have been descholarized in massive numbers, some since the outbreak of the war four years ago. The consequences of this, ça va de soi, will be calamitous—for the children’s futures, the countries in which they live, and Europe and the world—if the international community, such as it is, does not act quickly. Quoting Abdulrahman Kowara, director of the Syrian Education Commission—the de facto educational authority of the Syrian opposition in Syria and Turkey—at the end of the piece

“These children, if left uneducated, will harm Syria, Turkey and the entire world in the future…I see these children as time bombs, ready to explode any time. I see the expression of detachment on their faces. It is up to the world to help the future generations of Syria as much as their own.”

On the subject of Syrian refugees, the German website In a Nutshell – Kurzgesagt, which makes videos “explaining things,” posted a six-minute You Tube last Thursday—which has already been viewed almost 4.5 million times—explaining the European refugee crisis and Syria. It’s good and merits wide circulation, though, for the record, I will quibble with the line about how “[a]ll sides committed horrible war crimes, using chemical weapons, mass executions, torture on a large-scale, and repeated deadly attacks on civilians.” All sides have indeed committed exactions and done very bad things but the lion’s share of this has been the doing of the regime of Bashar al-Assad—and when it comes to the use of chemical and torture on a large-scale, that share is total. The Islamic State would commit worse crimes if it could but, so far at least, the aggregate quantity of its crimes and of persons killed, maimed and/or displaced from their homes as a consequence cannot hold a candle to those committed by the regime in Damascus.

In arguing for generosity toward the Syrian refugees landing on the continent, the video’s authors make this impeccable assertion

Even if the EU alone were to accept all four million refugees and 100% of them were Muslims, the percentage of Muslims in the European Union would only rise from about 4% to about 5%…The European Union is the wealthiest bunch of economies on Earth, well-organized states with functioning social systems, infrastructure, democracy, and huge industries. It can handle the challenge of the refugee crisis if it wants to. The same can be said for the whole Western world.

In a post two years ago on Syria’s Palestinians, I opined that it would behoove the European Union, US, Canada, Latin American states, Australia, and Russia to absorb all 300,000 of them. Comme ça. Can these states—to which one must add those in the OIC who have the means but have so far done little to nothing, but who can and must share in the responsibility—absorb four million Syrians? That’s a lot but what choice is there, as the Syrian war is not going to end anytime soon and what will become of those four million displaced persons in the meantime? But if some kind of international agreement can possibly be worked out on this at some point down the road—when the Syrian refugee crisis has really become untenable—the refugees should be offered choices as to where they want to go—where they have family or support networks, speak the language, and/or will encounter the least difficulties in finding employment, i.e. in integrating into the host society. If refugees are sent to countries—however generous the latter’s intentions may be—where they know no one, don’t speak the language, and are sure to have great difficulties in the labor market, there will be problems, as one learns in this report in Le Monde last week.

À propos of all this, see these two reportages—here and here—on the France 2 news this evening. Je n’ai rien à dire de plus.

Syrian refugees, Istanbul (photo credit: Vocativ/Jodi Hilton)

Syrian refugees, Istanbul (photo credit: Vocativ/Jodi Hilton)

Syrian refugees, Istanbul (photo credit: DHA Photo/Hakan Kaya)

Syrian refugees, Istanbul (photo credit: DHA Photo/Hakan Kaya)

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Barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, December 2013 (photo: Aleppo Media Centre)

Barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, December 2013 (photo: Aleppo Media Centre)

I’ve been riveted these days to the refugee crisis in Europe, as have millions of others, and specifically to the tragedy of the Syrians who are landing on the continent en masse. I’ve had tears in my eyes more than once watching the televised interviews of Syrian refugees who have lost everything: their homes, livelihoods, life savings, family and friends dispersed—when not killed—social networks gone… And their country. Lost forever. Syria is shattered. It’s finished and won’t be put back together. The Syrian people are living through a nightmare such that I cannot begin to imagine. (If one has two hours to spare, France 2’s Envoyé Special two days ago was entirely devoted to the refugee crisis and may be viewed here through next Thursday).

One consequence of the surge of Syrian refugees on Europe’s shores has been a proliferation of commentaries trashing President Obama’s non-interventionist Syria policy of the past four years. I’ve been seeing a fair amount of this on social media, with those denouncing Obama’s inaction calling it the biggest stain—that’s the favored word (tache, en français)—on his foreign policy record. The Obama-bashers include not only right-wingers—whom I pay no attention to, as they just want to bash Obama—but also academics, policy intellectuals, and MENA-specialized journalists whom I highly respect—some I know personally—such as him, him, him, and him; also see him and him. These Obama detractors have, needless to say, been arguing for intervention in the Syrian civil war since the outset—arming “moderate” rebel forces (i.e. the Free Syrian Army), establishing a no-fly zone, and/or taking out the Syrian barrel bombers via air power. I was totally opposed to an intervention to August 2013—as I wrote several times here on AWAV—though became more open-minded on the question after the Ba’athist regime’s chemical weapons attack in Ghouta—Obama’s famous “red line.” But Obama, seeing that he did not have the support of Congress or US public opinion—overwhelmingly hostile to another American war in the Middle East—decided against sending in the USAF. If there’s been a valid critique of Obama on Syria, it was his about-face at this moment; he could have acted the “leader” and done what he was thought was right—and not left France in the lurch,which was not nice—though it would have certainly been a fool’s errand in the end: an open-ended conflict with no end game, overwhelming pressure for the use of ground troops—which absolutely no one has advocated (at least openly)—and the US coming up against Russia, Iran, and Hizbullah, not to mention its putative regional allies—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—who have been arming non-moderate rebels from the very outset and are going to do what they’re going to do in Syria regardless of US may wish. The US would have been intervening in an exceptionally nasty and complex civil war, and that had already been invested by a number of regional actors who feel they have more at stake in the outcome than the US does itself. Syria is a catastrophe and would have been even if the US had done everything the interventionists had advocated. So despite legitimate criticisms of the president’s decisions, I have little patience for the Obama-bashing of my interventionist associates.

Saying all this better than I ever could is Aaron David Miller, who has an excellent, first-rate, 100% bull’s-eye essay in Foreign Policy, “It’s not Obama’s fault.” The lede: “The inconvenient truths about why you can’t blame the West for what’s happened in Syria.” ADM gets it exactly right on Obama and Syria. No money quotes. Just read the piece. The whole thing.

On Obama’s MENA policy more generally, see Marc Lynch’s excellent article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “Obama and the Middle East: Rightsizing the U.S. Role.” Lynch has his critiques of Obama’s MENA policy comme moi—e.g. I will fault him for pulling back from Libya after the successful intervention and backing the Saudis in Yemen—but defends it in the main. He begins

Critics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East strategy often complain that Obama lacks a strategic vision. This is almost exactly wrong. Obama came to office with a conviction that reducing the United States’ massive military and political investment in the Middle East was a vital national security interest in its own right. The occupation of Iraq and the excesses of the war on terrorism had left the United States overextended, especially at a time of economic crisis. “Rightsizing” the United States’ footprint in the region meant not only reducing its material presence but also exercising restraint diplomatically, stepping back and challenging allies to take greater responsibility for their own security. Obama has adhered consistently to this strategy, prioritizing it ruthlessly along the way and firmly resisting efforts to force it off track. This was not a strategy much beloved in Washington or in a region hard-wired for the exercise of American power. But it was a clear and coherent strategy that led Obama to undertake major initiatives on the problems he viewed as rising to the level of core national security interests: Iran’s nuclear weapons program, terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the war in Iraq.

On Syria, Lynch has this

The defining issue of Obama’s tenure will likely be Syria, whose bloodshed, radicalization, and regional destabilization will haunt the Middle East for decades to come. Few policies have been criticized more widely than Obama’s refusal to become militarily involved in support of Syria’s insurgency. It is easy to understand the outrage in the face of the Syrian regime’s unrelenting carnage and daily evils. But the hard reality, which Obama understood, is that none of the popular proposals for intervention would have made things better. Syria was doomed to its horrific civil war almost from the moment President Bashar al-
Assad chose to resort to military repression to stay in power and his opponents chose to take up arms and transform a peaceful uprising into an insurgency. U.S. forces could have been more or less deeply involved in the civil war that followed, but no degree of U.S. military intervention would have solved the problem. Even a large-scale military action would likely have failed, as the fruitless occupation of Iraq so painfully demonstrated.

Supporters of a Syria intervention usually insisted that they did not want U.S. boots on the ground. But the Obama administration was keenly aware of the pressures for escalation that would have followed even a limited operation, because the ideas for a limited U.S. intervention made little sense. Assad was not going to run away at the first sign of NATO bombers, and the limits of airpower have been demonstrated by the air campaign in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. A no-fly zone might have quickly grounded Assad’s air force, but it would not have protected rebels from mortars or ground actions. Providing antiaircraft weapons to the rebels would have made a tactical difference but would also have posed 
a threat to civil aviation. The U.S. military would have had to defend any safe areas that it declared, which could not be done from the air alone.

Arming the opposition, the most popular proposal and one that the United States has fitfully pursued, 
was always the least likely to succeed. The Syrian opposition was from the beginning hopelessly fragmented and has become increasingly radicalized as the war has ground on. As early as 2012, huge amounts of money and guns were already flowing to opposition groups from the Gulf countries and Turkey, and covert U.S. operations were already under way. But there were few effective and ideologically acceptable groups that the United States could comfortably arm. Arming the opposition would not have given the United States control over these groups, and it would have inevitably entailed U.S. support for extreme jihadists. Insurgents do insurgent things, and as the Syrian uprising morphed into an insurgency, it became increasingly radicalized and brutal.

Assad’s foreign patrons roughly matched whatever support came to the insurgents. As a result, increased external help for the Syrian rebels led only to a more destructive balance of power, with minor fluctuations in each direction within a broader strategic stalemate. And an empowered opposition was always going to become less willing to compromise, as was an empowered Assad. Short of an outright victory by one side, no balance of power could have compelled negotiations.

In the face of all of this, the Obama administration was wise to resist the slippery slope of intervention and instead to try to corral its allies, shape the conditions for negotiations, and alleviate human suffering. Its worst blunder, the aborted bombing threat of August and September 2013, demonstrated just how easy it was to get drawn in: Obama’s redline on the use of chemical weapons had been mostly a rhetorical sop to give the appearance of toughness, but once articulated, it became costly to abandon. Obama was wise enough to walk away and pay the reputational costs of backing down—but it is telling how near a thing the bombing was.

As with ADM, Marc Lynch says it better than I. C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire.

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CM2kF8mUYAAPf-x

I’m reblogging this essential post from the campaign Planet Syria.

1. The government of Bashar al-Assad is killing at least 7 times more civilians than Isis.

2. More than 11,000 barrel bombs made of scrap metal and high explosives have been rolled out of government helicopters onto hospitals, homes and schools since the UN banned them. These aerial attacks are the biggest killer of civilians. They drive extremism.

3. These barrel bombs are a leading cause of displacement, forcing refugees to cross the Mediterranean and other borders.

4. Many of the barrel bombs are dropped on areas under siege. More than half a million people in Syria live in areas with no access to food, water or medicine since 2013, including the areas of Ghouta that were targeted by the sarin gas attacks in the same year.

5. The international anti-Isis coalition is flying in the same airspace where many of these barrel bombs are dropped, choosing to look the other way.

There is no military solution to the fighting in Syria. But like in Bosnia, a no-fly zone can help protect civilians from the worst of the violence and encourage the fighting parties to come to the negotiating table.

It’s time to #ClearTheSky. Join over a hundred non-violent Syrian groups in asking for the international community to enforce the UN ban on barrel bombs with a Bosnia-style no-fly zone.

A no-fly zone over Syria. I was opposed to the US trying to enforce such a thing back in 2011-13 but now it’s time.

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