Thursday, May 30, 2013

Where have all the good guys gone? How the West lost Syria

Events have not been kind to the Syrian rebels of late. Bashar al-Asad’s* victories in Damascus and its environs and suspected use of chemical weapons were the first blows. The arms shipment from Russia, Lebanon’s Hezbollah declaring outright military assistance to the regime, and the continued refusal of the West to provide meaningful aid have almost certainly spelled an end to the rebels’ hopes of military victory. Even the lifting of an E.U. embargo on arms to Syria does not mean that the arms will be forthcoming any time soon. The looming question remains: even if we wanted to support the rebellion with arms, who exactly would we give them to?

Sen. John McCain pays a surprise visit to Syrian rebels this week. Too bad for them he didn't bring any guns.

Certainly not Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate that has emerged as a power player on the rebel side. Despite their odious ideology, the Nusra Front has proved a great asset to the rebels, assisting greatly in the battle for Aleppo. Any rebel victory would mean that the group would have a say in Syria’s future, and if their positions thus far give any indication, most Syrians – who have traditionally been one of the most secular societies in the Middle East – would not like it. Aside from Jabhat Al-Nusra, a proliferation of other extremist Islamist groups have taken control of towns throughout Syria, as indicated in this Crisis Group report. They, too, have had enough military successes now that the Islamist share in a new government would be quite large.

What about the Syrian opposition’s leader, Gen. Salim Idris? Could we funnel the weapons through him? This, too, proves a challenging proposition. The West would have no way of knowing who the weapons were going to, especially given the shifting loyalties of rebel fighters on the ground to one faction or another. As the bloody conflict drags on, more and more fighters are being radicalized or simply want to join the strongest side, and that has been the Islamist groups. As discussed above, these groups are also intrinsically linked to the rest of the Free Syrian Army. If the West were to provide arms to the Free Syrian Army, it would have to accept that these groups are part and parcel of that movement, and that one day we could regret our decision to arm anti-American militias. Think Afghanistan, but in the dead center of the Middle East, right across the border from Iraq.

If Western leaders find it too risky to provide arms, the only two options left are to intervene with our own militaries, or let the Syrians fight it out and continue attempts to reach a negotiated settlement. The first option is not on the table. In fact, it’s so far off the table it’s down the street hiding in the neighbor’s house hoping to never be brought to the table. The second seems to be the most likely policy pursued by the West, said or unsaid. The rebels have already said they will boycott upcoming peace talks in Geneva, although Asad has committed to attending. It appears that they either still have hope of Western assistance, or the violence has been to such a degree that reaching an agreement with a man who slaughtered thousands of his own people is to onerous to imagine. It is an understandable sentiment, but at the same time a negotiated settlement might be the best option left for the opposition. It would guarantee them a place in a new government, and perhaps even offer the option of an exit by Asad. Otherwise, there is no telling how many more lives will be lost, how many more people will be displaced, and how much of a ruin Syria will be when the dust and blood settle.

The aftermath of a recent government massacre in Bayda. 

The sick irony of Lebanon interfering in Syria’s conflict less than a decade after the Syrian government pulled out of its own thirty-year-long occupation of Lebanon should be lost on no one. Syria is becoming Lebanon circa 1975-1990. This is a good and bad thing: despite a protracted civil conflict that dragged out for decades and spilled over into its neighbors, Lebanon’s civil war did not cause the region to implode. Yet the degree of spillover is might higher in the Syrian conflict. Lebanon’s civil war generated a million refugees in 15 years. Syria reached that number in two. Its potential to ignite a region that has already experienced so many upheavals in the last decade is much greater than that of Lebanon.

As I write this article, I hate the words I have to say. I loathe Bashar al-Asad. Any human being that is capable of the crimes he has committed deserves to be in a very, very small cell for the rest of his days. I wanted the rebels to win militarily from the outset of the conflict. If the West had acted a year ago, six months ago even, that could still be an option. But the hard truth is, there are no more good guys in this conflict. The rebel side has committed atrocities of its own and has increasingly been taken over by radicals and extremists. The “good guys” lost this civil war a long, long time ago. It’s not an answer than anyone wants, but the West and especially the United States chose it. We chose it by not acting. We chose it by not helping. Now we have to live with it; that, and the blood of nearly a hundred thousand Syrian people on our already very unclean hands. Unfortunately, the only outcome of this civil war appears to be the maintenance in power of a dictator, a proliferation of extremism, and millions of Syrians whose lives have unalterably changed for the worse. Faced with these facts, I can’t help but ask, what was it all for?

*Since I’ve been getting a lot of comments on this spelling, I believe I owe the readers an explanation. In Arabic, Assad indicates an actual doubling of the “s” sound, marked by a symbol known as a “shadda.” There is no “shadda” on Asad’s name, meaning that it is pronounced without the doubling of the “s.” Therefore, the proper transliteration is “Asad” with one “s.” BOOM four years of Arabic! Now you can go forth with that knowledge and feel superior about it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

China's Cyber Threat to U.S. National Security

Adam Zyglis for The Buffalo News

With the North Korean premier Kim Jong-un's belligerent rhetoric and push toward nuclearization in recent weeks, one would think that American and Chinese interests are converging now more than ever. For the United States, policymakers just want the pathetic probes for legitimacy to end. And for the rising Asian superpower, threats to its regional stability and supremacy must be mitigated. In some ways, the North Korean debacle reflects how the two nations must cooperate on a number of levels in order to safeguard each other's interests. But although military relations between the U.S. and China have thawed in recent years, tensions are now mounting in the face of various security issues, most notably the Chinese military's cyber espionage campaign against American companies, government offices and defense contractors. 

In a confidential Dept. of Defense report obtained by The Washington Post, our worst fears have been confirmed surrounding suspicions that the Chinese government has been complicit with its military's cyber espionage activities against the U.S., the majority of which target our defense infrastructure. Defense experts note that the wealth of information that has been stolen from missile defense systems, defense contractors and subcontractors, and other American companies gives the Chinese a 25-year-head-start on their own military capabilities. The theft of this critical information enables the beholder a blueprint of virtually all of our defense operations through the Department of Defense. And while White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon has called for closer military cooperation between the two powers, the growing threat of Chinese cyber espionage puts this cooperation at considerable risk, and will at least will produce a pretentious relationship with a veneer of cooperation and an undercurrent of distrust and resentment.

The recent Dept. of Defense report comes at a time when the Chinese government has actually become more transparent about reporting on natural disasters and public health epidemics, unlike during the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s. This should not, though, be mistaken as a move toward greater overall transparency. The Chinese government still faces considerable criticism for its political elites' secretive grip on power and unwillingness to acquiesce in a Security Council resolution that would put international forces on the ground in Syria. Whatever lies behind their domestic scandals and international posture, the alleged cyber espionage is, in my opinion, the single largest threat to our national security. While increased economic cooperation and Ping-Pong Diplomacy 2.0 might help the United States and China seriously discuss the military and economic implications of data theft of this caliber, relations will likely continue to escalate to a point of no return, where government leaders openly accuse each other of serious threats to their national security and demand reparations. For the United States, this report comes as a test of its relationship to its Chinese counterpart: how much are we willing to tolerate or condemn before serious action is taken? So far it seems that the red line has not been crossed.

Friday, May 24, 2013

President Obama's Shift in U.S. Foreign Policy, Part II

"It's my drone dream to ride [drones] like ponies." - Vicky Kelberer (paraphrased)

Yesterday I wrote about how monumental President Obama's speech at the National Defense University was, and how significant it would be for U.S. foreign policy going forward. President Obama did a wonderful job speaking, even going off script to specifically address Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin's diatribe. Ms. Benjamin's outburst - which ultimately led to her being escorted out of the room - was directed at the drone strikes that have, along with successfully killing known terrorists in the past, killed and maimed many innocent civilians. President Obama, in a striking, unorthodox move, halted his speech and spoke out almost in agreement with Ms. Benjamin, acknowledging the flaws of the drone program and vowing to renew his vigor in closing Guantamo Bay along with reducing the use of drone strikes.

Medea Benjamin interrupting President Obama

To play devil's advocate with myself, however, one cannot help but be skeptical of President Obama's speech to some degree. In typical presidential rhetoric, he skirted specific details on exactly when the war would end. As he said towards the end of the speech, "Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school, immigrants coming to our shores, fans taking in a ballgame, a veteran starting a business, a bustling city street, a citizen shouting her concerns at a president." These are wonderful uses of the mode of emotional appeal, but paint a somewhat vague picture - don't all of these things already happen? The problem with terrorism is that victory is immeasurable for the most part. Attacks can be thwarted, and when they are, it should be considered a victory. But in the "war" on terror, these are merely victories at battle. It is inconceivable to think of a time when radical individuals set on causing harm to innocent people around the globe do not exist - they have been enmeshed with history since the beginning of mankind. It's one thing to say that we will shift our policy away from conventional warfare and begin to focus more efficiently on specific terrorist threats, but going beyond that assertion seems foolhardy. In closing his speech with this type of language, President Obama is leaving the doors wide open for an actual timeline on things such as drone policy, troops abroad and the privacy of Americans when it comes to government surveillance.

And in what can only be attributed to unfortunate timing, President Obama's speech coincided with one of the most gruesome and brutal terrorist attacks Great Britain has seen in years. Just a day before the president's speech, Islamic radicals drove their car into a plain-clothed soldier on the streets of London before getting out and hacking him to death with machetes, eventually beheading him. The suspects - all of Nigerian descent - have been detained, and luckily the attack didn't claim more lives. However, the attack does serve as a glaring reminder of what remains in the world. Nigeria is in the midst of a bloody fight against members of Boko Haram, a radical terrorist organization that has been terrorizing the country since 2009 and has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck has declared parts of the country in a state of emergency, enabling the military to essentially have free decision-making abilities and to wage an all-out war against the insurgents, exacerbating the situation even further. It will easily be months before Nigeria has stabilized itself, and that isn't even mentioning the insurgencies in Mali and Somalia, nor is it mentioning the Taliban's increased bombings in Iraq or the election-related bombings over the past month in Pakistan.

Drummer Lee Rigby, killed in London this week

In my opinion, President Obama has done a tremendous job at balancing the emphasis on fighting terrorism around the world and the emphasis on reducing our military footprint in such volatile regions. Drone strikes, as I said yesterday, have played a major role in that. And while President Obama's speech yesterday was monumental, and is significant in reshaping U.S. foreign policy going forward, it left much to be addressed. Obviously, President Obama doesn't have all the answers. Nobody does. But if according to President Obama's standards, victory is measured by everyday things that take place all across this country already, we need to begin to rethink our definition of victory.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

President Obama's Shift in U.S. Foreign Policy

President Obama’s shift towards surreptitious drone strikes during his first term exploded into a contentious debate over the past several months, and finally culminated in a marked shift in U.S. foreign policy today during a speech given by President Obama at the National Defense University. It has been nearly twelve years since the World Trade Center attacks, and in that twelve years the United States has seen two different presidents engage in two bloody, drawn-out conflicts in the Middle East accompanied by unprecedented military spending and substantial repercussions across the globe. Former President George Bush coined the term “The Global War on Terror”, and waged it tirelessly during his time as president. Now, as President Obama said in his speech today, it is time that this country rethink its strategy in fighting terrorism – using Mr. Bush’s rhetoric, it is time the war winds down.

While President Obama is curbing the use of drone strikes going forward, there is no question they will continue to be a predominant tactic in the transcendent and pervasive effort to eliminate terrorism from the world. And while many Americans and others worldwide have obstreperously protested the use of drones, it’s hard to think of a viable alternative. As the argument goes, there is no oversight to control the use of drone strikes, and the result has been countless (literally, often an amount that U.S. officials neglect to definitively ascertain) civilian casualties. But do we really want more oversight from the government that is constantly making headlines not for its milestone legislation and progressive agendas, but rather for its inability to reign in agreement from opposing sides on even the most banal and straightforward of issues?

Furthermore, it’s hard to see the logic behind the argument of civilian casualties. Sure, it is tragic that innocent civilians die due to drone strikes and quite often there is little or no apology for it. But surely conventional warfare claims significantly more innocent lives. The issue with these arguments is that there is rarely an alternative presented, and in the event that one is presented, it is insufficient in obtaining to goals that the drone strikes are there to achieve.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” President Obama said during his speech today. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” In a speech that will be studied in the IR classes of the future, President Obama has effectively changed the course of this nation’s aggressive world-policing policy of the past, steering it towards what I think are greener pastures. Global terrorism is insidious in nature – it will continue to plague not only the United States, but also the rest of the world. Certain measures, such as drone strikes, are unavoidable and must be considered a necessary evil in order to fight for the greater good. I applaud President Obama, however, for taking a step back and signifying that the days of putting tens of thousands of troops on the ground in already volatile regions are, at least for now, over.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Burma Rising?

Since 1962, the large Asian nation alternately known as Burma and Myanmar for complex political reasons has lived under a brutal military junta responsible for ethnic cleansing/genocide, the use of child soldiers in ongoing civil conflicts, mass rape, child and slave labor, human trafficking, and a complete lack of the freedom of speech. Since 2011 when the ruling military began easing its grip on economic and political life, the country has quickly improved its relations with longtime foes in the West, especially in the realm of trade. Many have hailed the apparent Burmese turn-around, especially when pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and hundreds of political prisoners were granted amnesty. In December 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became the first Secretary to visit Burma in more than half of a century, followed by Pres. Barack Obama this month, the first president to visit Burma since its independence.

A Kachin Independence Army soldier (the military of one of the provinces fighting the government) patrols the jungle.

These marks of progress should not be belittled at the same time as they should not be hailed as complete victories for human rights. Within the so-called “Tourism Triangle” that contains Burma’s ruling ethnic groups and cities, life certainly appears a bit rosier. Former political prisoners have been allowed to return home from prison and exile abroad; people speak openly if cautiously about their government; elections were held in 2010, and while their fairness is questionable their existence is laudable; Pres. Thein Sein has made statements committing to reining in the military and fostering democracy.

Yet for all of this progress, outside of the “Tourism Triangle,” at least 11 ethnic military groups are battling the military for autonomy or independence. The human rights violations occurring in these areas are matters of speculation since foreigners are not allowed outside the Triangle. Reports of rape, extrajudicial executions, torture, the use of child soldiers, and the reliance on forced labor to supply the military are a common thread.

Pres. Obama has expressed “deep concern” to the new leader about the ongoing violence, but in reality Pres. Sein has few options. A member of the former military junta himself and a high-ranking general, he is unlikely to introduce any form of system to bring those responsible for human rights violations to justice. The military also remains outside of his control under the Constitution, and he has a limited ability to control the decisions of officers.

As massacres and human rights abuses continue to occur throughout Burma, even longtime political hero Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire from her former supporters. Her close relationship to the military establishment and unwillingness to speak up against human rights abuses of ethnic minorities has confused, hurt, and enraged those that stood by her during her imprisonment.

Democracy is a messy process that takes decades to take root, and even when it does it is naturally imperfect. It has only been two years since the “Opening” of Burma, and already the improvements have been significant. With greater economic development and opportunities for all of Burma’s people, it could be that democracy will continue its slow march, human rights abuses will decline, and the military’s influence will wane. To a person from an ethnic minority in Burma, however, these words are small comfort in the face of slaughter.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Anarchy Reigns Supreme in the Central African Republic

On Wednesday, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative to the Central African Republic (CAR), Margaret Vogt, had some unsurprising news for the international community: the CAR is descending into a dark phase of anarchy where rebel fighters are indiscriminately killing civilians, carrying out targeted killings, committing rape and recruiting child soldiers to their cause. The frightening disregard for international law threatens to plunge the country further into chaos as the old and new guards struggle for power following President Francois Bozize's ousting in March by the Seleka rebel coalition, led by Michel Djotodia.

Special Representative Margaret Vogt. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Special Representative Vogt's statement might very well become a significant juncture in the country's crisis. In addition to her concerns surrounding human rights and humanitarian law violations, Vogt points out that it appears that the CAR is becoming a safe haven for foreign rebel groups that carry out unchecked exploitation of the country's natural riches: gold and diamonds, among other resources. The situation there has been in flux since March and the new assessments from the Special Representative are falling on overburdened ears in the Security Council, which Vogt asked to authorize a neutral stabilizing force to be deployed in the CAR. Vogt's statements substantially elevate the political consequences for inaction as she reports on dire circumstances that clearly call on the international community to exercise its right to protect innocent civilians. Her statements are essentially a call for desperately-needed international intervention.

As a land-locked country rich with natural resources, the CAR is among the poorest in the world. Strongmen, including ousted President Bozize, have reigned over the nation since its independence. Mounting dissatisfaction with the Bozize regime--notably the deterioration of the public sector--sparked the March coup, bringing the Seleka rebel coalition control over a disillusioned public. The Central African Republic's ousted administration is calling on France, the CAR's former colonial presence, to intervene in what seems to be a nod to both France's historical interests in the country and recent military intervention in Mali. Vogt, on the other hand, has requested a neutral stabilization force, similar to that of the Abyei region which straddles Sudan and South Sudan. 

While the international community contemplates its options in the Central African Republic, there is likely going to be significant emphasis on a more regionalized force to stabilize the chaotic situation there. Besides France, prominent UN peacekeeping donors are unlikely to take much interest in this conflict, putting into question the efficacy of the force Vogt hopes will restore stability. But as our attention focuses on the immediate situation on the ground, the international community should also consider the longer-term implications of these events, specifically the difficulties peacebuilders will face in disarming child soldiers and ensuring their reintegration into post-conflict society. Without an immediate solution to blunt these atrocities, the future of the CAR may very well be defined by war-hardened children and adolescents and periodic power grabs that aim to control the country's vast resource wealth. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

No Coup is Good Coup: Pakistan's 2013 Elections

In a country whose history is marred by military interference, ranging from bullying to outright takeover, the first peaceful democratic transition from one civilian government to another is about to take place. On May 11, 2013, Pakistan held general elections that resulted in two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League taking at least 125/272 seats. The world’s fifth-largest democracy appears to be on the verge of finally deserving its title.

Thumbs up: A woman casts her ballot in Lahore. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Since independence in 1947, there have been three successful and many more unsuccessful military coups in Pakistan. In its 66 years of independence, Pakistan has spent 33 years under military rule. Although elections have taken place in the interim, the public’s perception of military control over civilian governments has historically led to low voter turnout in elections. The previous election in 2008, which transferred power from the coup-initiated government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, saw only a 44 percent turnout amid widespread reports of election fraud. Saturday’s election already has a projected 60 percent turnout, an increase that indicates a return of voter confidence that their voices would not go unheard.

PM-elect Nawaz Sharif’s victory has also boded well for Pakistan’s struggling economy. The Karachi stock exchange jumped to historic highs once Sharif’s win became apparent. He is viewed as a free market, pro-business politician that will focus his efforts on increasing Pakistani trade, especially with traditional enemy India. Sharif himself was toppled in a military coup led by Gen. Musharraf in 1999, spending several years in exile until returning to a more favorable political climate in 2007. Musharraf was forced into exile in turn at the end of his rule, and in a hugely symbolic case was arrested following his return in March 2013 and charged with corruption in one case, and also placed under house arrest for his role in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in another.

The detention of the military’s old guard aside, Saturday’s election success came amid widespread pre-election violence and threats, which makes the high voter turn-out all the more impressive. Sixty-four people were killed in attacks on election day itself, while over 100 have died in pre-election violence. The son of former PM Yousef Raza Gilani, Ali Haider Gilani, was kidnapped in May, and the police chief of Balochistan’s home in Quetta was bombed. Despite these high-profile incidents of violence, even in the most dangerous districts voters would not be deterred from the polls.

Pakistan’s new government faces large and looming problems as it takes office: a destitute economy, a severe shortage of electricity, and ongoing homegrown terrorism. While on the first two issues Sharif has strong prospects for success, he has a lukewarm history of fighting terror. His power base derives from Punjab province, home to several terrorist organizations including Lakshar-e-Taiba, and he depends upon their constituents’ support in elections. Even with this obstacle to peace in Pakistan, the country still has a stronger democracy, more assertive and independent judiciary, freer media, more extensive youth engagement, and better relations with India than it has had in decades. Pakistan will depend on continued improvement in the years to come: American withdrawal from Afghanistan is right around the corner in 2014, and the chaos that will almost certainly ensue on Pakistan’s border will require Sharif’s government to uphold its promises of democracy more fervently than ever before. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Nigeria's "Dirty War"

When counterinsurgency becomes too much counterinsurgency, it becomes a war - a dirty war that claims far too many innocent lives and leaves a legacy with the country it takes place in that is often difficult to erase. Such is the case with Argentina, whose "dirty war" in the 1970s led to over 10,000 civilians "disappearing", and such is the case right now in Nigeria. Boko Haram, the nefarious group of Islamic radicals who have targeted Nigeria since 2009 have finally struck a nerve with the Nigerian government, who is now fighting back just as hard, if not harder. The saddest part of all this is that neither group has benefited the Nigerian population at all - both of them are killing innocent civilians, and the fighting seems to be far from over.

The war between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military has claimed nearly 4,000 lives since 2009. The Islamic terrorist cell is an interesting study, as they are, unlike most terrorist organizations in their class, hell bent on attacking Westerners. In fact, the only purpose Boko Haram serves is to overthrow the Nigerian government, whom they perceive as being "false muslims"; the goal is to replace the government with one that will impose strict Sharia law.

The Nigerian military has been anything but productive in countering Boko Haram. Recently, extrajudicial killings have become the norm, and scores of dead bodies are being dumped at morgues all over the country every day - whether or not these individuals were part of the terrorist organization is never proven, but the military shoots and kills anyone deemed "suspicious" and experiences no repercussions from the government.

Unfortunately, this is the efficacy of terrorism at work. The military is very easily able to justify the recent slaughtering of civilians by claiming that Boko Haram members blend into their surrounding environment - a true statement. But while Boko Haram continues their bombing campaigns and moves forward with their terrorist agenda, it is apparent that, inadvertently or not, the military and Boko Haram are not waging a war on one another - they are joining forces and waging a war on the Nigerian population.

Counterinsurgency is something I'm often a major proponent of. With counterinsurgency, there are usually less civilian casualties than in conventional warfare, and by understanding the culture of a particular community, it is significantly easier to permeate that community and root out the insurgency without a whole lot of bullets being used. Counterinsurgency, when used right, has almost always been a markedly better tactic than simply dropping thousands of troops on the ground and waging full-scale war against an insurgent group.

However, there is such a thing as too much counterinsurgency. Nigeria is clearly tired of the incessant violence that is unwarranted and brought on by Boko Haram. It goes without saying that they have killed far too many innocent civilians in their attempt at a backwards government which would only further stymie development and would openly persecute females and gays. However, Nigeria's lack of patience and inability to successfully execute a counterinsurgency is cause for concern. Argentina is still reliving the nightmare of its 1970s - it would be a shame to see Nigeria go down the same path.