Iraq was not the first illegal US-led attack on a sovereign state in recent times. The precedent was set in 1999 in Yugoslavia.

The legality of the war against Iraq remains the focus of intense debate – as is the challenge it poses to the post-second-world-war order, based on the inviolability of sovereign states. That challenge, however, is not a new one. The precursor is without doubt Nato’s 1999 attack on Yugoslavia, also carried out without UN support. Look again at how the US and its allies behaved then, and the pattern is unmistakable.

Yugoslavia was a sovereign state with internationally recognised borders; an unsolicited intervention in its internal affairs was excluded by international law. The US-led onslaught was therefore justified as a humanitarian war – a concept that most international lawyers regarded as having no legal standing (the Commons foreign affairs select committee described it as of “dubious legality”). The attack was also outside Nato’s own remit as a defensive organisation – its mission statement was later rewritten to allow for such actions.

This article is old (it was first published in 2003) but is relevant for understanding current Chinese suspicions of American hegemony.

You can read the rest here.

Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and Sunni monarchies.

The second element shared by both revolutionary Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood is a model of political Islam that uniquely combined popular sovereignty and Islamic values in the paradoxical phrase, “Islamic Republic.” This hybrid theory departed from the long-seated Sunni model of functional differentiation between the political and the religious in Islamic history and has invited fierce opposition from both clerical establishment and the throne. In Saudi Arabia, Islam and the state are two separate entities that have come together only on the basis of the exigencies of practical politics. Hence, Saudi Arabia supports a minimalist, literal reading of Sharia law in which what matters are symbolic private laws and issues of personal piety including the hijab, abstinence from alcohol, marriage and divorce, and so on. According to this pattern of interaction between mosque and state, Islamic authorities don’t intervene in the larger political issues of foreign policy and macroeconomics, which goes against the version of Islam both Iran and the Brotherhood advocate.

Much more of interest in this short read.

You can read more here.

The Iran Puzzle

Excellent editorial by the NYT on what role Iran plays in American Middle Eastern “strategy.”

Trump administration officials worry that the Iranians, aided by the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, will seek control of enough territory in two adjacent countries, Syria and Iraq, so as to establish a land bridge from Tehran all the way to Lebanon. There they could resupply their Hezbollah allies, thus enlarging their regional influence.

I tend not to think that an emergence of a “Persian Crescent” is as big of a deal as other tend to make it be. Either way, without any conceviable strategy towards Iran in operation, the U.S. should cooperate with Tehran on overlapping interests (i.e. stability in Iraq, defeating ISIS, and frankly, keeping Assad in power) while the contrasting interests appear to be on the backplate (nuclear spread, Iranian meddling in Yemen (at least I haven’t heard of any Iranian meddling in the conflict as of lately) and state sponsored terrorism directed at Israel).

 

Why Is the U.S. Killing So Many Civilians in Syria and Iraq?

That is the title of a NYT Op-Ed today.

Here is the second half of the piece, noting that there are low hanging fruit in reducing these tragically high numbers.

One reason for the huge increase in noncombatant deaths is that the United States is dropping more bombs — a more than 20 percent increase from the last four months of the Obama presidency to the first four under Mr. Trump.

Also, more strikes have occurred in populated areas, like Mosul, the Islamic State’s last stronghold in Iraq. A 500-pound bomb aimed at two snipers there detonated stored explosives, which collapsed a building and killed 105 Iraqi civilians on March 17, according to Centcom. Since the Islamic State is using residential buildings as command posts, storage depots and fighting positions, noncombatant deaths are more likely.

Yet far more troubling factors have emerged.

Even as the American military has accelerated its bombing, there is no independent assessment of the intelligence used to identify targets. Brig. Gen. Richard Coe, who investigated a mistaken attack on a Syrian military convoy in September, acknowledged that there was no “red team” to critique the decision-making process, a common approach in many commands. “Each person is expected to do that on their own,” General Coe said, “and then, in the process, funnel up the pros and cons to decision makers.” Individuals immersed in identifying enemy targets cannot simultaneously evaluate their own judgments.

Until June 13, the American military had only two people investigating Iraqi and Syrian civilian casualties full time. There now are seven full-time investigators, still a meager commitment given that around 10,000 troops are stationed in Qatar at the command’s headquarters for the air war. A dozen people investigated such claims at the height of the Afghanistan surge in 2011. If the military were concerned about civilian deaths, more investigators with training and experience in targeting would be assigned to those teams.

There is also no longer any public accountability. On May 26, an American military press officer confirmed that the Pentagon will no longer acknowledge when its own aircraft are responsible for civilian casualty incidents; rather they will be hidden under the umbrella of the “coalition.” The United States military has been responsible for 95 percent of airstrikes in Syria and 68 percent in Iraq. Centcom should own up to its own actions rather than dispersing responsibility.

 

Congress has shown little interest in identifying the root causes of civilian deaths, holding commanders or lower-level officers accountable, or ensuring that the lessons learned from mistaken strikes are integrated into future operations. Congress could exercise its oversight role by mandating Pentagon reporting about what steps it has taken to mitigate civilian harm, funding additional awareness training for American and other coalition officers, and holding public hearings with senior civilian and military officials.

Since the air war began some 22,000 airstrikes ago, military officials have repeatedly claimed that they “do everything possible” to protect civilians. Making good on that promise is not only the right thing to do — it is also strategically vital to the longer-term effectiveness of the fight against terrorism.

Don’t escalate the fight against ISIS.

 

President Trump has identified ISIS as his highest priority and, acting accordingly, has deployed 1,000 Marines to Syria, pledged future support to Iraq, and requested an additional 5 billion dollars to help escalate the fight.

 

There are good reasons for the United States to be concerned with ISIS. At its height, some estimated that ISIS controlled approximately 35,000 thousand square miles including such major cities as Mosul, Ramdi, Falluja, and Raqqa. Outside of the Middle East they have inspired similar style caliphates, such as Boko Haram, as well as terrorist attacks against the west.

 

Yet, it is still not clear that it is in America’s interest to get furthered involved in this fight. This is because there are other groups in the region who have a stronger incentive to defeat ISIS and, by most metrics, appear to be doing just that.

 

According to IHS Conflict Monitor, ISIS lost approximately a quarter of its territory in 2016. Ramdi and Falluja were recaptured and ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa. Their reduction in territory was accompanied by an estimated loss of 50,000 fighters.

 

Their financial problems are mounting as well. It has been reported that the Caliphate’s monthly revenue and oil production are down 30 percent and salaries have been cut nearly in half.

 

All of this has resulted in a lowered morale, an increase in infighting, and a rise in desertions.

 

American air strikes certainly played a role in creating this situation, yet it is probably not in America’s interest to get furthered involved in the conflict. ISIS is already battling a long list of enemies in the region that include the Assad regime, the Russian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, the Kurds, various Sunni rebel groups, Hezbollah, and basically most of the Muslim population at this point. All of these groups have different reasons for getting involved in the conflict, and at times their regional interests conflict with one another, yet all have an interest in defeating ISIS. Despite the complicated politics of the region, they have been working together to do this. To give just a few examples, Russia and Turkey have fought together in Al Bab, Iran has deployed its military to support the Assad regime and Iraqi government, and a variety of local militias which include Arabs, Syrian Christians, Turkmen, and Kurds are working together in taking back Raqqa.

 

ISIS poses the biggest threat to the region, not America. Therefore, it should be the regional forces that take the lead in defeating them, not some country on the other side of the world. Despite not always being well coordinated, this is what is happening. The Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian governments as well as the various local non-state entities have all made serious advances into former ISIS territory and have seriously reduced ISIS ranks. With the momentum for an ISIS defeat growing, the United States may be tempted to rush in and tip the balance, but it would be wise not to interfere. Further American involvement would reduce the incentive of the local forces to continue their fight against the organization as well as possibly producing unintended consequences. It was after all the American invasion of Iraq and the de-Ba’athification of the Baathist regime that lead to the creation of ISIS in the first place. There is no way to know how an American escalation of the fight will complicate the current conflict and with ISIS on the ropes, the United States would be wise to leave well enough alone and continue to let the local powers take the lead in defeating ISIS.

 

Brian Clark is a foreign policy researcher living in Beijing, China. He blogs about international politics at www.managinghistory.com

America should think long and hard about escalating the war on ISIS

Here is a snippet from Quitting ISIS: Why Syrians are Abandoning the Group. 

Tarek, a former ISIS fighter from Deir Ezzor, estimated that when he deserted his unit in Deir Ezzor, 60 percent of his fellow combatants were under the age of 18. One former ISIS child soldier from al-Hasakah, Sami, was 14 years old when he first joined in 2014. He initially kept his enlistment a secret from his family and abruptly disappeared for three months. His mother became alarmed when he returned home one day with new clothes and a Kalashnikov. Realizing that her son had been brainwashed, she asked Sami’s older brother to take him to Turkey. They have been there for a few months, working in a factory; they’re among the lucky few who have been able to find civilian jobs after leaving ISIS. Sami cried as he recounted the deaths of several of his oldest childhood friends who had joined ISIS with him and were recently killed in a battle against the regime in Deir Ezzor. ISIS had been using these children as cannon fodder on the frontlines because they lacked the training and experience to be useful in other roles.

America needs to ask itself if this is the sort of fight we want to be involved in. Do we seriously want to drop bombs on battalions made up of children?

I honestly can’t think of any better propaganda for ISIS than being able to point to dead Muslim children resulting from American airstrikes.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

The authors are  and .

Paul Pillar on America in the Middle East

National Interest has a wonderful article penned by Paul Pillar titled “How Donald Trump Should Transform America’s Middle East Policy.”

He states the quite obvious that

An immense share of the blood and treasure the United States has lost overseas in the past couple of decades has been in the Middle East, an expenditure that has not brought proportionate benefits.

You can rattle off the failures easily, from the Iraq invasion to the dithering in Syria. Obama’s Pivot to Asia, which was based on an interpretation of America being over-involved in the Middle East, was a good start in addressing our poorly formulated regional policy. Yet, a significant chunk of his foreign policy legacy will be defined by his inability to disentangle America from Middle Eastern politics. This includes Libya, Yemen, Syria, ISIL, Iran, the Arab Awakening, Peace Process, etc..

What is to be done? The US still has interests in the Middle East, but they should be better defined and more limited. Moving forward, his recommendations include

…the initial principle that the new administration should observe in making policy toward the region is the Hippocratic one of first doing no harm. A second principle is to keep costs and risks commensurate with prospective gains to U.S. interests. A third is to recognize that not all problems, even heart-rending ones, are solvable, and that if they are, the United States is not always best suited to solve them. Often the interests and objectives of other players in the region are better engaged, and this sometimes means taking advantage of the balancing of conflicting interests.

Highly recommended that you read the entire thing (quickly as it will soon be gated).

 

The forever war expands to the Horn of Africa.

At least legally. The NYT has a report detailing the Obama administration inclusion of Somalia’s Al Shabab as falling under the scope of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) which was the congressional response to 9/11. It gave the President a very broad and liberal mandate to use force in the War on Terror.

The summary of the bill, found here, states:

Authorization for Use of Military Force – Authorizes the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.

So on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda, with the support of the Taliban, carried out a terrorist attack that killed roughly 3,000 people. Congress responded by allowing the President to use force against those who orchestrated this attack. 15 years later we are bombing a tangentially related group nearly 2,500 miles away from where those who planned 9/11 were located.

This is obviously mission creep and is the unfortunate consequence of the “forever war,” or the state of affairs in which covert operations and curtailed civil liberties are the new normal.

The biggest issue I have with the pursuit of Al-Shabab is how easily the executive branch relaxes and constricts the scope of the 2001 authorization to suit its own short-term interests. Determining who is an enemy of the state is all done with no transparency nor checks outside of the administration.

As Micah Zenko state in the NYT, “It’s crazy that a piece of legislation that was grounded specifically in the experience of 9/11 is now being repurposed for close air support for regional security forces in Somalia,” said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.”

This isn’t new territory for the Obama administration. As noted in the same article, a similar style of interpretation of the 2001 AUMF was used to authorize the use of force in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and in June of 2016, to reenter Afghanistan.

Two consequences could result from this military engineering in far off lands.

1) As well documented by its critics, the victories of the war on terror have a tendency of producing new enemies. We may kill the leadership of Al Shabab but there is no way to be certain that the United States doesn’t produce more terrorist in its wake.

But 2) we have someone about to assume office who many expect to not impose any constraints on his use of power. Despite being relatively measured (at times anyway) in how he exercised the use of force abroad, President Obama has continued the behavior of the previous administration of setting very dangerous precedents of eroding legislative and judicial constraints on how he pursued the War on Terror. Precedents are especially important for a democracy as leadership changes on a regular basis. Donald Trump is inheriting a series of executive overreaches which would allow him a very liberal interpretation of who our enemies are and the precedents he sets building off of the Obama administration behavior could be very damaging for the institutional quality of American democracy.