For Obama’s War Non Policy, it’s Go Big or Go Home

A year ago I wrote about President Obama’s low energy lack of engagement with trying to save Iraq and defeat ISIS. I had offered some suggestions on how Obama could have butched up his war plans to actually be effective.  Of course I didn’t really expect Obama to take any such advice, whether from me or the countless military advisors at the Pentagon.  Ultimately, he just wasn’t that interested and prefers to wait out the clock until he’s out of office and then complain about whatever the new guy (or gal) decides to do.  Of course in the past year, a couple of things have happened:

Everything has gotten worse.  The Islamic State hasn’t been stopped, and it might be generous to say that they’ve been slowed down.

The Islamic State is now a real state. They are now acting in their territory just like any other government, settling disputes and providing government services.  No one recognizes their government as a legitimate government, but it’s there anyway.

The amount of airpower we’ve been willing to put into the war effort has been kept at a low enough level to not make much difference.

The Obama Administration, CENTCOM, or someone in it (*cough* James Clapper* cough*) is politicizing intelligence to make sure only happy talk is allowed to be disseminated.

Obama’s plan to train a “moderate” Syrian rebel force is a complete failure. We spent $500 million to field 4 or 5 rebels in country.

In the meantime, a massive refugee crisis has broken out as a result of the war, consisting of as many as 9 million Syrians.

The Russians are moving in, setting up operations inside Syria to shore up their ally, President Assad.

So it’s pretty clear that Obama’s no-effort strategy is an abject failure.  And it also means that anything I thought could have been done a year ago has washed away.  The situation is far direr today than it was a year ago and will probably get worse before it gets better, which may not be in the foreseeable future.

So tossing my old plans in the garbage, it’s obvious that we need a new one, but what?  The option I outlined last year included:

  1. Training the remaining semi friendly anti ISIS forces, primarily the Kurds but also some Iraqi regular army units.
  2. Fortify and blockade the Syrian-Iraqi border to keep ISIS from resupplying and reinforcing its holdings on the Iraq side, allowing the Iraqi’s to take back their own territory and force Assad to engage ISIS instead of him using them as a pawn to drag us into saving his bacon.

All of that is meaningless now.  The reality is, whether we accept the existence of the Islamic State or not, is that there is a Sunni Arab state operating in majority Sunni Arab territories taken from both Iraq and Syria, and it’s likely to remain in some form or another.

But this is a good news / bad news situation.  Given where we are now, I thought I had come up with an original, not yet discussed solution to the Syrian issue.  Unfortunately, in researching this, I discovered that The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon had already beaten me to it:

“…[A] final option is partition or confederation. Partition is certainly easier said than done — whether the goal is to create new countries or autonomous zones held together through some weak central government. But if the parties do recognize that they need to work together and there is some natural way to divide up land that is seen as both fair and militarily enforceable, partition can work. Conflicts between Bosnia and Kosovo, between Eritrea and Ethiopia and between the two Sudans have all ended this way — though often only after a great deal of blood has been spilled, and often only with the help of international peacekeepers along the various lines of separation.”

Given the ethnic/religious map of Syria, it just makes sense that we should stop trying to fit square ethnic groups into the round holes of artificial states that would never have existed if not for the European map making that lead to the Sykes Picot Agreement, which divided up the Middle East by the British and French after World War I. O’Hanlon seems to envision some sort of federation or confederation, but I think mini states would work better.  Let Assad keep the Alawites, and let the Christians, Druze and Kurds go their separate ways.

The Sunni Arab area needs to be let go.  It mostly belongs to the IS anyway.  The only part of that area that needs to be separated is a Sunni enclave separate from the IS for refugees; and of course a possible staging area for future operations against ISIS.

Of course there is more than one fly in that ointment.  The first one is Putin.  He’s moved into Syria in a big way and appears ready to take the military offensive against ISIS to save his client state.  Before the Russians moved in to Syria, the US had the option of operating more or less without taking the Russians into consideration.  But the US policy of keeping the Russians out of the Middle East, which had lasted for decades, has collapsed due to the Obama administration’s inattention.  If anyone has taken Rahm Emmanuel’s advice of never letting a crisis go to waste, it’s been Putin. So anything having to do with Syria now has to go through the actual military power that is on the ground there: Russia.

The other fly in the ointment is of course the Obama administration.  They are the architects of this catastrophe, due to their inexperience and purposeful ideological blindness.  They wanted hands off the Middle Eastern disasters and this is what it looks like; hundreds of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

So for that reason I rate the possibility of actually accomplishing anything as quite low.  Going big would require a major military commitment.  But on the plus side the only areas you would want to take are those areas that truly want be liberated from ISIS, whether they’re Christian, Druze, or Kurds.  Although I’m not sure I would even support that kind of military commitment, I recognize that if you really want to do something useful, you have to do it on that scale.  But  I don’t think the Obama administration has even the appetite for diplomatic action.  Far more likely than going big is simply going home. At least Obama has given a good example of what happens when America Shrugs: chaos.

For those who think the idea of partitioning Syria is unrealistic, there is precedent.  That was how the Yugoslavian civil war was eventually resolved, by; partitioning the area into several states.  The Middle East is revolting against their old, artificially created borders anyway.  That can either be guided to a more peaceful resolution or it can be ignored and resisted with all of the accompanying death and international chaos that goes with it.  But one way or the other, it’s happening.

Update: Since I wrote the above, Putin has changed the game once again. At Monday’s speech at the UN he said that he wants to put together an international anti terrorist coalition to go after the Islamic State. Russia will introduce a UN resolution to that effect, and who can blame them?  International politics and leadership abhors a vacuum, and if the United States is no longer providing leadership, apparently Russia will; on their terms.

UN Ambassador Puts ‘The Onion’ Out of Business

Every time I think I’m done talking about Syria, the Obama administration pulls me back in.  But this time I’m pulled in not to discuss policy, but to just throw up my hands and give out a hearty “Oh Good Grief,” Charlie Brown style.

I’ve previously wrote here and here about the absolutely amateurish way the Obama administration is handling their self made Syria “crisis.”  But it seems the amateurishness and naivety runs all the way through this administration.

Last Friday UN ambassador Samantha Power spoke to the Center for American Progress, a left wing advocacy organization, on Syria, in an effort to shore up support among President Obama’s normally reliable allies; some of whom are feeling a bit queasy in supporting missile strikes against Syria. I don’t know successful she was in convincing a group of people who are normally anti-war no matter what that this was a good old fashioned humanitarian war, but she did reveal an astonishing lack of realism regarding Russia and Iran as she related in her speech:

“We worked with the U.N. to create a group of inspectors and then worked for more than six months to get them access to the country on the logic that perhaps the presence of an investigative team in the country might deter future attacks or, if not, at a minimum, we thought perhaps a shared evidentiary base could convince Russia or Iran — itself a victim of Saddam Hussein’s monstrous chemical weapons attacks in 1987-1988 — to cast loose a regime that was gassing its people. We expanded and accelerated our assistance to the Syrian opposition. We supported the U.N. Commission of Inquiry. “

So… our UN ambassador, who is part of the team that is crafting US foreign policy, thought that by showing proof that Syria was actually using chemical weapons; Iran and Russia, on some sort of vague humanitarian grounds, would drop their support of the Syrian government.  I can only conclude that we have high school model UN’s that are more serious than this administration’s UN ambassador.

There doesn’t seem to be much to add to that.  I can’t imagine that the governing class of either Russia or Iran cares about videos of gassed children.  These are amoral and deadly serious regimes that are playing the long game. The fact that the Obama administration thought that would make a difference in Russian or Iranian calculations is ridiculous.  Did they really think that those governments were just sitting around blindly supporting the Syrian government and would be shocked, shocked (once again, with apologies to Captain Renault!) that Syrians are using gas on the battlefield?

I think this puts the administration beyond parody.  I mean, how do you top that? That’s why I think the Obama administration has finally broken the back of The Onion.  There is no way The Onion will be able craft a more ludicrous story than this real one.

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Syria Backtrack

I was as shocked as anyone that President Obama did an about face on firing his phallic symbol-like missiles in Assad’s general direction.  Although I had previously called the administration amateurish, they managed to redefine the word amateur down.

First we’re going to attack, then we’re going to get Congressional approval, but don’t worry, that doesn’t matter, since Obama states he still has the authority to attack anyway, and will, regardless of the vote.


Although there are conspiracy theories that the rebels, not the Assad government, actually used chemical weapons as a false flag to trick the US into intervening, I prefer to consider such theories ridiculous until proven otherwise.   As far as figuring out a position on what to do in Syria, I’m just taking the administration’s word that the intelligence is good, and that Assad is the culprit.

However that doesn’t give guidance on how the US should react.

I would really like to support the President in this.  Politics stops at the water’s edge and all that’ however Obama has managed to make it as difficult as possible to support a policy in which the publically stated goals are to accomplish nothing.  They’re not to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons, cripple the regime, or do anything of any military significance. It’s a military mission with no military objectives, and frankly, not even political ones.

Syria isn’t a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, so in a technical sense, they didn’t actually violate “International law.”  The administration is well aware of that since they use terminology “International Norms,” which means things that the international community, such as it is, doesn’t like.  Although no one in the international community feels their norms were violated enough to actually do something about it.

Obama should have just fired his missiles last week without all of the foreplay and advanced warning.  We would have already been on to another issue by now with the feeling that we had sort of accomplished something.  Instead, there was the desperate pleading for international support, an embarrassing House of Commons vote, and now an upcoming Congressional vote that’s likely to be even more embarrassing.

And how will Congress vote?  Very unconventionally apparently.  Noted warmonger Rep. Nancy Pelosi, after wresting with the issue with her 5 year old grandson, is on board to attack Syria. And John McCain, between Smartphone games of poker, is always up for another bombing.  How will the rest of the Congress vote?  It’s not as easy to predict.  Although I can guess how a certain young Illinois lawmaker would have voted:

Official photographic portrait of US President...

Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now let me be clear–I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied U.N. resolutions, thwarted U.N. inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.

He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

But the 2002 edition of Barrack Obama was quite a bit different from the current model.

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Do We Need to Police Syria?

Although not a neo-con, as the term is commonly used now, I do recognize that the US has a distinct role to play in the world, at least for this period of our history, in helping maintain a stable world order.  In a limited sense, it’s not a fool’s errand.  The best example was the Gulf War.  Saddam Hussein annexed neighboring Kuwait, and began massing his armies on the border of Saudi Arabia.  Although I am no friend of the House of Saud, I sure didn’t want it replaced with Hussein’s dictatorship, and leaving Hussein on charge of the majority of Persian Gulf oil.  There was a principle to be adhered to; you can’t just conquer other countries, strip them for parts, and steal their national resources so you can hold it hostage on the world market.  The United States, acting through its sock puppet the UN (at least for that issue), assembled a coalition which included Syria, and kicked Saddam out of Kuwait.  Establishing a cost for a country that tried to conquer it’s neighbors willy nilly helps keep that sort of that action extremely risky, not matter how militarily weak one’s neighbor is and as a result, it’s a relative rarity in the post World War II era.

English: Brasilia - The president of the Syria...

English: Brasilia – The president of the Syrian Arab Republic, Bashar Al-Assad during a visit to Congress Português do Brasil: Brasília – O presidente da República Árabe Síria, Bashar Al-Assad, em visita ao Congresso Nacional (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is another principle at stake now and the Obama administration is preparing to attack Syria based on it; you can’t use chemical weapons; particularly on civilians.  There are not many taboos in warfare, but using chemical weapons would certainly be on that short list.

But in this case, there are competing interests and principles involved.  Prohibiting the use of chemical weapons is a taboo for those countries that were involved in World War I.  Those nations were horrified by what they had done on the battlefield and although almost all of them kept some manner of CW weapons in stock during the 20th century, they weren’t used and relatively few of the former World War I combatants have active stockpiles now.  Even Hitler didn’t use them, although he had them.

But the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily share those taboos. Certainly Saddam Hussein didn’t share them during the Iran-Iraq War, or when he gassed his own people at Halabja in 1988.  And Bashar Assad doesn’t share them now.

So, if we are going to enforce as a norm, the idea that using chemical weapons against civilian populations is verboten, then we have to react.  Although I can’t believe that was actually Obama’s plan.  The reason we are attacking Syria is so Obama can feel butch. He made up that “red line” statement about chemical weapons thinking he would never have to pay up since at the time, all of the experts were saying that Assad had only weeks left.

So here we are 30 months into a Syrian civil war and the experts were wrong, as seems to be the case quite frequently, and now Obama is trying to make it look like his word means something.

But as I said, there are competing interests.  Just like the Iran-Iraq War, in which Henry Kissinger said, “It’s a shame they can’t both lose,” there are no good guys in the Syrian conflict.  There is a choice between an anti-American dictatorship that is a state supported sponsor of terrorism, or a fundamentalist Islamic regime that almost certainly will be a state sponsor of terrorism.  So  foreign policy of the old “realist” bent would be interested in keeping the war between our enemies going on as long as possible.  The longer they are concerned with each other, the less they will be concerned with us.  That was basically our strategy with Iran and Iraq during the 1980’s.

So which is more important?  Leaving secular Baathists and Islamic fundamentalist to fight it out, or interfering and possibility helping the Islamic fundamentalists by inflicting damage to the Syrian Military?

Left out of most of this discussion is what is in the national security interests of the United States?  To me, that has to be a key component of any US military intervention and I just don’t see it in this case.

Although I’m as opposed to the use of chemical weapons against civilians as the next Westerner, we let the Iraqi’s go at it against the Iranians for years and didn’t lose any sleep over it, and in this case, my inclination is to just get a good night’s sleep.  Eventually, the conflict in Syria will be over, and an enemy of the United States will be in charge.  I don’t see much advantage in hastening that day.

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