Tag Archives: Syria

No End In Sight: Syria

SyriaThe one consistent thing about the Syrian civil war is that there never seems to be an attractive way to end it.  If Assad “wins” his rule will be weakened and he will likely be a proxy of Iran and will rule over a large Sunni population that hates him and is better armed than before.  That’s an untenable position to be in at best.  If the opposition forces win then the Sunni majority will likely exact revenge on the Alawites and any supporters they had in the country.  Furthermore, these factions will most likely turn on each other once the single threat of Assad is removed.

Recently Secretary of State Kerry stated that he hopes that a diplomatic solution based on power sharing can be reached. Power sharing between the Alawite minority and the Sunni majority is not likely to succeed for two reasons. First, the power sharing agreement would be overtime and that would be very difficult to enforce.  Could Assad be trusted to not jail to attack the opposition once they demobilized? Could the Sunni leaders commit not to consolidate power once Assad opens the government to reform? Second, the battlefield as it stands now will not allow either side to come to an agreement. They both still think they can win and to make matters worse they have funders that are willing to support them.  Until the power relations outside Syria can come to an agreement and cease funneling money and guns across the border this war will continue. But as that seems unlikely, perhaps a some tactics of governance can point towards a solution.

Decentralization may point to a path around this however–some studies have shown that civil war combatants are more likely to sign a treaty if they are given some level of territorial autonomy.  This would allow combatants to maintain political control over their own territory as well as control the security aspects.  This path to decentralization and regional autonomy may result in a defensible peace.

However there exist problems in this strategy as well as Rothchild and Roeder point out.  While decentralization may help to end ethnic conflict, it can also hinder the democratic process over time.  There’s no guarantee that the Sunni camps would remain at peace while keeping Assad in power.

There are no good options in Syria just bad, worse and impossible. That said a plan that could incentivize actors to move towards peace at least in the short-term might be the best I’ve heard so far.


Casus Belli, Syria & Chemical Weapons

url  Our international system rests on two pillars: states are sovereign, and they shall not, for the most part, attack each other.  Both of these are reflected in the U.N. charter which recognizes two exceptions: an attack in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolution or in defense of one’s self or collective.  The U.S. is now faced with either abiding by these laws or abandoning them for a possible unlawful intervention in Syria.  For all its disregard for law, including the recent use of chemical weapons, the Syrian regime has not given up its own sovereignty.   As a matter of international law the conflict continues to be an internal despite the violent spill over into Turkey and Lebanon.

The first exception to the rule covers any intervention supported by the Security Council.  The U.S. had such a mandate in Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia and the most recent Gulf War.  Due to a likely veto from Russia and China that deals with any Syrian intervention there is little possibility for U.N. sanction.

The second exception applies to defense of self or the collective.  Under this ruling Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Iraq or Lebanon could respond as could their allies in NATO.  Legally this is a very grey area. Despite the occasional skirmish on Turkish or Israeli borders this may not have created a justification for war.

Some may argue that states have a right to self-defense in the form of a preemptive attack.  However, this theory has a troubled past not the least of which is due to the U.S. justification of the Iraq war, not to mention it relies heavily on proof of imminent threat and intent. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of intent from the Assad regime and these are historically hard to prove.

The U.S. will likely compile an argument based on the chemical weapons usage and horrors taken place within Syria, of which there are many, and argue the adverse impacts on the region.  As in the case of Kosovo, this argument produces a war that is unlawful, but justifiable nonetheless.  This argument is made even more murky by the fact that Syria has never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and thus may not be held to a law they never signed.

The Obama administration must also wrestle with U.S. law as well as international.  The Constitution divides power between the Executive and the Congress which has the ability to declare war, raise taxes to support war and set the rules for war.  The Justice Department decided in 2011 that the President could launch attacks into Libya as long as “such use of force was in national interest” and the duration “would not trigger Congressional approval.” The argument that Syria now threatens regional stability is certainly plausible but may not be enough to sway Congress.

When we feel passionate about a conflict it is easy to dismiss these laws as unnecessary constraints on American power.  However, international law has a value more than its codification of normative values.  The slope between war and peace can be very slippery and the treaties, laws and institutions act as road signs and brakes on that slope allowing us weigh the enormous costs of war.  By following international law we could slow the slide to war and build a legal, moral and truly international force.

Why Egypt won’t be another Syria

imagesThe removal of the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Morsi supporters took a violent turn as security forces killed at least 525 people and injured almost 4,000 people nearly all of whom are Morsi supporters.  People who saw the assault have reported  bulldozers smashing camps and security forces opening fire on unarmed citizens.  One protestor is on record stating:

“Some onlookers were standing at the surrounding buildings, terrified by the unfolding deaths. Others smiled at the thought that the sit-in, which paralyzed their everyday lives for over a month, was coming to the end.”

Despite these last few tumultuous weeks and the “Day of Anger” scheduled today Egypt will mostly likely avoid spiraling into a civil war. First off, Egypt is held hostage to foreign influence such as aid from the U.S. and other Gulf States all of whom funnel billions of dollars into Egypt.  It’s unlikely that those external forces would allow one of the most populous countries in Africa and the Middle East to fall into civil war.  Without that outside support its unclear if the military could sustain a civil war like the Assad government, which is propped up by military aid from Iran and Russia.  It’s true that arms have been smuggled into Egypt from Libya using Bedoin underground channels but these are mostly rifles and small arms, not the heavy artillery one would need to combat the Egyptian military for a prolonged length of time.

Second, up to now all signs point indicate that General Abdul Fatah el-Sisi has no interest in actually governing. Instead he is more concerned with the material perks of power, not the day-to-day running of a country such as the dispersal of public goods and managing a hard hit economy.

Lastly, Syria is run by a minority sect while Egypt is mostly Sunni and doesn’t have the deep Sunni/Shite tensions that plague other Middle East states such as Iraq and Syria.  Even the killings of Coptic Christians doesn’t seem to be stirring the embers that would ignite a full-blown civil war.

The conflict now is less of a civil war and more of a propaganda war where the Muslim Brotherhood has gained the world’s sympathy and the military might be pushed by public opinion to allow for more liberal forces to enter the political debate.  If the Muslim Brotherhood can maintain its non-violent stance then Abdul Fatah may back down thus ending one of the most violent crackdowns in history.  However the military must find a way to save face and realize that they cannot eradicate the Brotherhood with violence.

Gender Violence in Armed Conflict: Where Have All the Men Gone?

soldiers_01 The United Nations argues in Women, War and Peace that while women remain a minority of combatants and perpetrators of war they increasingly suffer the greatest harm.  This myth about gender and armed conflict has taken on a life of its own both in academia and in policy areas while no resource offers the breakdown of victimhood by gender necessary to make that claim.

The idea of predominantly female victimhood seems to stem from the misunderstood number that 90% of all casualties in war are civilians mentioned in the article.  The author makes two assumptions with that quote. First, casualty does not necessarily mean fatality  and “civilian” is being used interchangeably with “women.”  Associating ‘gender’ with ‘women’ is a common mistake, one that I’ve dealt with in my own classes.

If the data is restricted to conflict related deaths or the intentional killing of civilians by a combatant than men become far more likely to be victims than women, approximately 10 times more likely.

If you expand the definition of victimhood to include sexual violence and other types of conflict related attacks, that may sway the data but men are not immune to sexual abuse.  When it comes to indirect violence such as disease and malnutrition a study by ICRC states that women may be disproportionately represented in refugee camps, however the American Political Science review states that within civil wars women are more likely to perish from indirect violence.  While these reports don’t contradict each other they demonstrate the divide in how to measure gender violence and the difficulties in gathering data on indirect violence.

The very term “gender violence” is often misused to mean ‘violence against women’ by policy agencies and academics.  This gender stereotype has deadly consequences for men as it equates a person’s sex with gender roles in battle.  If it is accepted that men are combatants, then they all become targets and a woman’s role in combatant is not questioned. This binary categorization of the genders in combat is resulting in men not being allowed civilian status and protection as is happening on the Syrian/Jordanian border.  

Why does any of this matter?  Changing the views of male victimhood may change the way we see larger societal gender roles.  The feminist movement has long used the woman warrior to challenge gender roles, its odd that male victims have not been used for the same goal.

Syria: Military Intervention or Realist Chess Game?

I’m a little late to the party, but I feel the discussion on Obama’s strategy in Syria could use some revising. The death toll in Syria has reached 100,000 and 1.6 million refugees have fled the area. The Obama Administration has evidence of nerve gas used by Assad.  Obama has even stated the Administration will provide weapons to the opposition forces. But to what end?

Arguments abound in the media, both for and against, in predictable points of view for our involvement in Syria. Citing the awful death toll,  the hard drawn line of the use of chemical weapons, and, on the other hand, the dangers of military intervention in such a mission.  While these are all valid arguments, I feel they miss the larger point and therefore the real goal of the Obama White House.   

Obama has long been an adherent to Realism the political theory where states primary goal is the obtainment of resources, act on self interest through military build up, often leading to a security dilemma.   

On paper, Obama has a very clear goal — to support a rebel victory that results in Assad’s removal. He believes that opposition forces are the best way to go about achieving that goal.  He may also be attempting to balance the power in the region with Iran and drain Russia and Hezbollah of resources. In a classic Realism when your enemy gains, you accelerate supplies; when your enemy faces loses, ease back gain.    

If Syria has become a Realist chess board then Obama will have accept some rather dubious claims including that arming the opposition forces will:

1)   Halt the regime’s gains and give the forces a fighting chance

2)   Win influence over the groups and the people they defend

3)   Balance the power that Iran, Al Nursa or any Sunni forces may have gained

4)   Unite the more secular forces and drive out Al Qaeda backed groups

What’s wrong with these points? A few things…

· The Syrian Army uses attack helicopters and tanks to bombard towns from far away so small arms will not help the Syrian forces make gains nor improve defenses

·Interventions like this tend the prolong conflict  

·Research shows that external support generally fractures groups 

·No research has ever proven that a patron or country can reliably “buy” influence from a group or groups 


In order for Iran to lose this chess match, the rebels have to make political and military gains.  For Iran, a victory would just be avoiding an outright U.S. win.  If Obama’s gamble fails it will only reinforce just how weak U.S. influence in the region has become. And then, checkmate.    

Despite the tragedy that is the loss of life, culture and history of Syria, a greater one awaits the Syria population if this power game continues.  They will not be collateral damage. They will not even be pawns. They simply will be the board on which this game of power struggle continues.  

Many commentators, including David Brooks, have made comparisons to a Post 9-11 Iraq. This is folly. Instead, I recommend we view this situation as Afghanistan in the 1980s where President Reagan made the decision to arm opposition forces to combat the Soviet Union. A choice that birthed some the same forces we face in Syria today in the form of Al Nursa and Al Qaeda.

Limiting the discussion of whether or not to intervene not only misses the underlying issue but is short sighted.  Why limit your tools to only rooks and bishops that attack in straight predictable lines?  Predictable military strategies result in a lot of time being wasted attacking and defending positions instead of looking at all the players on the board and seeing what is happening.

Acknowledging where this great chess game is going and getting the players to sit down for diplomatic talks requires a more flexible strategy with more flexible players. If Obama wants to reach any end game in Syria he needs to release his knights. Jump over near by obstacles and get to the heart of the matter. U.S. foreign policy has been here before, a diplomatic response would go a long way improve relations with Gulf States and U.S. standing.