Putin Tightens His Grip on Syria: Editorial, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 4, 2016 — The Obama Administration on Monday suspended the latest round of talks with Moscow over the Syrian civil war.
Barack Obama's Options: Lee Smith, Weekly Standard, Oct. 3, 2016— Barack Obama wants options on Syria.
Dion vs. Putin Ends Predictably: John Robson, National Post, Sept. 29, 2016 — Have you ever seen a man shoot down modern jet fighters with his tongue?
Double Standards for Aleppo and Gaza: Simon Plosker, Algemeiner, Sept. 29, 2016 — Make no mistake, the carnage taking place in Aleppo right now is a disgrace to the international community.
Research on the Islamic State, Syria, and Iraq: Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Middle East Forum, Aug., 2016
Does Assad Really Have Time on His Side?: Ari Heistein, National Interest, Sept. 30, 2016
The Syrian Horror That Obama Let Happen: Richard Cohen, Realclearpolitics, Oct. 4, 2016
Obama’s Syria Policy Striptease: Tony Badran, Tablet, Sept. 21, 2016
Wall Street Journal, Oct. 4, 2016
The Obama Administration on Monday suspended the latest round of talks with Moscow over the Syrian civil war. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has responded by suspending a plutonium-control agreement and dispatching a sophisticated anti-air system to Syria.
News of the new military shipment comes from three U.S. officials who spoke with Fox News, which reports that the SA-23 Gladiator arrived in the region over the weekend at Russia’s naval base at Tartus, on the Mediterranean. This is the first time Moscow has deployed the SA-23 to Syria.
The SA-23 system could impose significant restrictions on U.S. military action in Syria, since it can target cruise and ballistic missiles as well as aircraft. U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed creating no-fly zones in Syria to deter the Bashar Assad regime’s murderous bombing runs, and her opponent, Donald Trump, has vowed to escalate the war on Islamic State. Mr. Putin has now dialed up the risk quotient associated with either course of action.
The bigger concern may be Russia’s growing military clout in the Middle East. The SA-23 deployment follows Russia’s transfer of a similar system to its clients in Tehran, its firing of cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea and its use of an Iranian air base earlier this year to launch sorties against Syrian opposition targets.
The Obama Administration and its media allies dismiss these developments as swaggering by a second-rate power, or as signs that Mr. Putin is being trapped in an Arab quagmire of his own making. But the Russian understands that he is creating military facts on the ground that increase the leverage of his allies in any future talks. The leaders in Israel, Turkey and the Gulf States will no doubt appreciate the shifting balance of power the deployment reflects. There is a war on. Russia’s side is winning, and the allies of America and the rest of Europe are losing.
Weekly Standard, Oct. 3, 2016
Barack Obama wants options on Syria. "The president has asked all of the agencies to put forward options—some familiar, some new—that we are very actively reviewing," said Anthony Blinken, deputy secretary of state. But force is not an option, since according to the White House there is no military solution for Syria.
"We're trying to pursue the diplomacy," John Kerry told a group of Syrian opposition activists in a meeting whose proceedings were leaked last week. To that end, Kerry wants some credible threat of military force—not, of course, to force the Russians to bend to American power. After all, as Kerry has insisted, "We remain absolutely convinced there is no such thing as a military solution." No, all they want is to make the Russians a bit more agreeable to American pleas for mercy. In any case, Obama rejected Kerry's proposal. Force is not an option, even if it's just meant to get Moscow to the table.
Options are urgent since the suffering in Aleppo is getting worse. The assault on what was once Syria's largest city, comprising forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, with Russian, and Iranian support, may be the worst in more than five years of fighting. The president wants options. The White House even tried to hand Syria over to Russia but that didn't work.
"With the Sept. 12 U.S.-Russia cease-fire agreement," former Obama staffer Philip Gordon wrote last week in the Washington Post, “the Obama administration offered Putin a way forward that from a Russian perspective could only have been described as a clean win. If fully implemented, the agreement would have prevented regime change in Damascus — a major Putin redline — for the foreseeable future; boosted Russia's position as a major power in the Middle East; facilitated military and intelligence cooperation with the United States against terrorist groups; diminished a costly conflict; and secured Russia's Mediterranean base.”
And still Russia said no. The White House pressured Democratic leadership to delay a Syria sanctions bill because it might have annoyed Moscow, but Putin refused to accept Obama's surrender. Instead, the Russians are hammering away at Aleppo. And why not? The Obama administration cannot stop them no matter how many rostrums it employs—in Europe, the United Nations, or Washington itself—to denounce Moscow's barbarism. Putin doesn't care how much suffering he's inflicting on innocents. His plan is to protect his client Assad, and thereby advance Russian interests by turning himself into the key player in Syria, to whom everyone, allies and adversaries alike, will have to speak. The Russians believe that there is a military solution to the Syrian conflict. And thus it is hardly a coincidental benefit that Putin gets to teach Barack Obama a lesson about the nature of the world a she understands it.
Over the course of several years of Syrian and then Russian aerial campaigns targeting Aleppo, hundreds of thousands of people have fled a city of what was once three million for refugee camps, or Turkey, or Europe. "The United Nations," reports the Washington Post, "estimates that 250,000 remain surrounded in eastern Aleppo, many of them the poorest of the poor, the families who couldn't afford the cost of transportation out of the city."
Witnesses to the carnage, and victims of it, detail the means by which Putin rains death from the sky: Bunker busters, says Haisham Halap, a journalist trapped in Aleppo, "cause extreme harm and turn the buildings that are hit into rubble and dust…After we see and hear the Russian jet, it takes about 20 seconds until the bomb hits the ground or a building. It then takes another 20 to 30 seconds for the bomb to explode, for instance in a cellar, and the whole house collapses." "Cluster munitions, continues the journalist, "are big bombs that carry many small bomb balls. Each of the small bombs contains metal balls that kill and hurt everyone at a distance of 200 metres." Incendiary bombs, he says, "are so hot that they can even penetrate concrete walls… Everything that is in contact with these bombs will burn."
The administration warns Russia that it may break off talks. That is an unlikely option, since it would leave the White House with no political cover for its irrelevance. As long as Kerry continues to try to engage the Russians there is at least the empty talk of diplomacy, rather than an empty white noise that is periodically filled by the sound of bombs falling on civilians. Obama is tired of critics claiming that his Syria policy is a manifestation of American weakness. "Seeking peace is not a concession," says a White House spokesman. "Seeking peace is our goal."
Obama wants peace, and options. "There hasn't been probably a week that's gone by in which I haven't reexamined some of the underlying premises around how we're dealing with the situation in Syria," Obama said last week. The war in Syria haunts him. "It haunts me constantly," he told Vanity Fair.
Of course, there are problems in the world that can't be solved. "There are going to be some bad things that happen around the world," said Obama, "and we have to be judicious." And that's why the president is asking for options. "The conventional arguments about what could have been done are wrong," Obama said. A no-fly—wrong. Buffer zone—wrong. Arming rebels to topple Assad—wrong. Strikes against Assad regime targets—wrong.
Over the last five plus years, Obama dismissed all the "conventional arguments" made by his staff, from which he is now asking for different options. "But I do ask myself," says the president, "'Was there something that we hadn't thought of? Was there some move that is beyond what was being presented to me that maybe a Churchill could have seen, or an Eisenhower might have figured out?'"
Churchill kept together a country at wartime, its capital under constant siege from an enemy in the air. He held on long enough for the United States to enter the war, a campaign led by Eisenhower. The difficult coalition that Eisenhower managed as Supreme Allied Commander saved Western civilization from an unspeakable darkness. Churchill and Eisenhower were exemplary figures under extreme circumstances, but their extraordinary actions were premised on a basic understanding of statecraft, and therefore the darker colors of human nature: There are times when the only option is force.
Obama knows what Churchill and Eisenhower would have done since he prides himself on doing precisely the opposite. "There's a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow," he told the Atlantic in April. "It's a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses." It was when Obama changed his mind about ordering strikes against Assad for crossing his own red line regarding the use of chemical weapons that he freed himself from the playbook. "I'm very proud of this moment," he said.
The paradox is that the playbook was composed for figures like Obama. Statesmen like Churchill and Eisenhower would understand as a matter of experience and instinct what was required to secure interests, protect allies, and maintain national prestige. In liberating himself from the wisdom and guidance handed down by history, Obama has left himself with no option—except the White House's hollow protests against the barbarism now encircling Aleppo.
National Post, Sept. 29, 2016
Have you ever seen a man shoot down modern jet fighters with his tongue? Or his ego? I ask because of the bizarre spectacle of our foreign affairs minister calling for the grounding of Syria’s air force in the apparent conviction that he had just done something useful rather than pathetic and fatuous.
It happened at a meeting of the International Syria Support Group, speaking of pathetic and fatuous. After Vladimir Putin humiliated Barack Obama by granting him a Syrian ceasefire, then having Syrian and Russian planes unleash even greater carnage, Stéphane Dion and other masters of rhetorical futility like John Kerry gathered in New York to insist that, instead of flying around killing people, we are supporting with emptily resonant words, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s air force should stand down so we could help his enemies and enforce “future ceasefires.”
It is one of those occasions when I wish I could convince myself a man was being stupid on purpose. If so, he might stop on purpose, or be saying one thing in public and doing or at least thinking another in private. But I see no evidence that it is so.
In theory, the United States, even now, could bring significant force to bear. But its president is unwilling or even unable to grasp the concept. And Canadian politicians have proved unwilling, over three decades and both major parties, to acquire armed forces capable of independent action or even significant support for our allies in a deeply troubled world. The only rational explanation is that they genuinely don’t grasp that force is the trump suit in geopolitics, or get Hilaire Belloc’s couplet, “Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight, But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.”
Frederick the Great said diplomacy without force is like music without instruments. Yet politicians such as Dion and Kerry consider themselves Mozarts of multilateralism, whose enchanting melodies can bend foreign despots to our will and reform their souls so they stop wanting to kill people with weapons they deliberately acquired for that purpose while we deliberately didn’t because we were convinced weapons are obsolete and icky.
If I have to explain what’s wrong with that self image , the effort is probably futile. But here goes. Bashar Assad is a bad man. With me so far? He’s not misunderstood, he doesn’t have a different truth, and if he was warped by a miserable childhood we can give him therapy and hugs once he is deposed, but not before.
He lives in a bad neighbourhood where he inherited his father’s murderous tyranny and made it worse. Plenty of people in Syria would kill him in a heartbeat, from genuinely decent ones to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant maniacs against whom our government has the same weirdly nesh attitude regarding military action. Assad won’t stop killing his enemies, real or imagined, and any civilians who happen to be in the way, until he is killed or deposed. So if we want his aircraft to stop slaughtering civilians, we have to kill or depose him.
There are many reasons for not undertaking such a thing, including the failure of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not that nation-building is a necessary adjunct to killing or deposing a tyrant, though we seem persuaded that for domestic PR purposes it is. But the fact that killing or deposing Assad might be impossible, or more trouble than it’s worth, has absolutely no bearing on whether anything less will stop him killing his own people. He has already killed hundreds of thousands, many of them non-combatant civilians, with Russian help. And he and Putin won’t stop just because Dion says it’s not nice.
They won’t be surprised that he thinks it’s not nice, or impressed. They think people like Dion are weak fatuous nits. They actively enjoy humiliating them. Dutch investigators showing beyond reasonable doubt that the missile launcher that brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine came from Russia and went back afterward doesn’t bother Assad’s ally, Putin. Instead, it increases the sweet humiliation he inflicts on Western statesmen who cannot pretend they don’t know or do anything to punish him.
Now I do want to say that if every country in the world were run by people as averse to force and as baffled by it as Dion, Kerry, Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau it would be a good thing. But it would not be a good thing if much of the world was run by people as viciously willing to use force as Assad and Putin and as brutally cunning about its short-term utility, while the major democracies were run by weak fatuous nits, standing tall in New York, firing rhetorical salvoes at Syrian warplanes from their silver tongues and waiting smugly for them to fall from the sky over Aleppo.
Algemeiner, Sept. 29, 2016
Make no mistake, the carnage taking place in Aleppo right now is a disgrace to the international community.
The Syrian government and Russian-backed forces are reportedly using chemical weapons, barrel bombs and increasingly powerful explosives to target innocent men, women and children. While rebel fighters have undoubtedly embedded themselves in the city in fortified positions, it appears that the civilian population is bearing the brunt of the conflict.
While there has been some condemnation from the UN, where are the protests on the streets of European capitals and where is the media frenzy about this disgrace? Had Israel been involved, or had the IDF aimed one solitary munition at Aleppo, I think the response would be much different.
The international community’s condemnation of the Assad regime and Putin’s Russia is nothing compared to the vitriol leveled against Israel for its far more restrained (and completely justified) 2014 operation against Hamas in Gaza.
Unfortunately for the 250,000 residents of Aleppo, the city is not being attacked by the IDF. There are no leaflets being dropped warning civilians to evacuate areas in the line of fire. There is no “roof knocking” — where non-explosive devices are dropped on the roofs of targeted buildings to give civilians time to flee. And judging by the number of civilian casualties and the extent of the destruction in Syria, there is very little to no concern for the well-being of innocent civilians.
Aleppo is a testament to the double standards at play when it comes to the treatment of Israel’s military operations. There is, however, a caveat. The IDF should be held to higher standards than the militaries of both Syria and Russia. And that is why The Sunday Times of London caught my eye recently. One story was headlined “Putin’s gigantic firebombs torch Aleppo.” Next to it was an article entitled, “RAF drone crew divert missile to save ‘civilian’ seconds from death.”
The dissonance between the two stories is striking. On one side, we have the alleged deployment by Russia of a weapon “capable of blasting a massive ball of flame across wide areas of Aleppo.” On the other, the release of a video by Britain’s Royal Air Force showing a drone missile aimed at ISIS terrorists being diverted at the last minute to avoid killing a civilian. One side was indiscriminately firebombing, while the other was deliberately acting to prevent civilian casualties.
The RAF evidently felt that its tale was a positive story, which showed that its drone squadrons act both ethically and in accordance with international law. Why is this news? Israel released many videos from incidents where missiles targeting Hamas terrorists were diverted due to the presence of Palestinian civilians. So why then were Israel’s identical efforts not deemed newsworthy? Granted, the Sunday Times is a British newspaper covering the British military, but the UK press has never been shy about devoting many column inches to Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli efforts to minimize civilian casualties go unreported or even ignored by the press, and Israel instead finds itself regularly judged in the court of public opinion, which is led by a lazy or hostile media. So Israel is subjected not only to a different standard than the deplorable militaries of Syria and Russia, but even to a different standard than other Western militaries.
If and when the Syrian conflict comes to an end, will anyone be held to account for what certainly appear, at face value, to be genuine war crimes? Will there be a UN investigation and a Goldstone-style report? Will the International Criminal Court issue indictments? Given Russian involvement and the lack of American global power projection, it is unlikely that anyone will be held to account.
The next time open conflict between Israel and Hamas breaks out, will the parameters of judgment have changed as a result of the carnage in Aleppo and other parts of Syria? Or will Israel continue to be held to a standard of behavior unlike any other military in the world? The likelihood is that nothing will have changed when it comes to how Israel is treated, and we will be left to conclude that, ultimately, the world will be outraged by Israel defending itself and its citizens irrespective of how ethically it behaves.
Research on the Islamic State, Syria, and Iraq: Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Middle East Forum, Aug., 2016
Does Assad Really Have Time on His Side?: Ari Heistein, National Interest, Sept. 30, 2016—That President Bashar al-Assad sees time as working in his favor in the Syrian Civil War is evidenced by his disregard for internationally brokered ceasefires. And it is true that in the international arena, his relative situation appears to be steadily improving, as the discussion of a viable moderate rebel fighting force has all but died out.
The Syrian Horror That Obama Let Happen: Richard Cohen, Realclearpolitics, Oct. 4, 2016—The New York Times' David Sanger had an interesting observation in a recent article on Vladimir Putin's bizarre foreign policy. Russia, Sanger wrote, is a "declining economy with the gross domestic product of Italy."
Obama’s Syria Policy Striptease: Tony Badran, Tablet, Sept. 21, 2016—America’s settled policy of standing by while half a million Syrians have been killed, millions have become refugees, and large swaths of their country have been reduced to rubble is not a simple “mistake,” as critics like Nicholas D. Kristof and Roger Cohen have lately claimed. Nor is it the product of any deeper-seated American impotence or of Vladimir Putin’s more recent aggressions.