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.

What is behind the Arab-Qatar divorce?

Hugh Eakin has a very informative piece at the New York Review of Books.

He writes

In fact, the battle for Libya is only one of several Arab uprisings this year in which Qatar has played a provocative part. In Tunisia and Egypt, no Internet and broadcast medium did more to spread the cause of popular protest than Al Jazeera, Qatar’s government-backed satellite television news network. In early April, the Qatari prime minister publicly called for the resignation of embattled Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh—a statement that departed from the more conciliatory position of other Gulf nations and led Saleh to charge that Qatar “has conspired against Yemen.”

But on Iran

Indeed, Qatar appears to have a decidedly different approach toward popular revolt in its own neighborhood. When Iranian security forces were condemned internationally for attacking protesters after the disputed 2009 election, the Qatari prime minister asserted that it was an “internal matter” and that “we must respect the right of each state to solve its own problems.” In March, as Bahrain began its violent repression of protesters in Manama’s Pearl Square, Qatar supported the controversial military intervention led by Saudi Arabia to prop up the regime.2

Perhaps terrorism, despite Trump’s tweets, are not the real issue but just a convienent scapegoat?

You can read the rest here.

I second Edelman and Tahiroglu’s suggestion to call Turkey’s bluff.

 

They have a piece in Commentary discussing the increasingly frayed relationship between Turkey and the United States.

They write

“Thursday’s NATO Summit provides an opportunity for the alliance to get tough on its putative Turkish ally. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s destabilizing policies in Europe and the Middle East have made it appear less an ally and more a Russian Trojan horse. To keep Turkey on track, NATO has been appeasing Erdogan, to no avail. Turkey’s recent “Eurasianist turn” and Erdogan’s now-constitutionalized one-man rule have only complicated the relationship. It is time for NATO to remind Erdogan that he needs the alliance just as much as NATO needs Turkey.”

The origins of the Turkish-American alliance are found in the same logic as most of the semi-permeant alliances formed after WWII. We wanted to contain the red menace. This was particular important for Turkey as Russia was, and probably still is, Ankara’s main antagonist.

Akin Unver has two excellent pieces on Turkish-Russian animosity. Regarding Crimean, he writes

“Some have argued that marching on Crimea was a last-gasp effort by Putin to save his fragile rule. But from the Turkish perspective, Russia’s invasion of Crimea fits a 340-year pattern. First, some military historians believe, Russia tends to expand when all of its neighbors are weak and unable to respond. Second, domination of the Black Sea is usually a shot across the bow; it presages further interventions. Third, Black Sea domination has inevitably required a revisionist stance on the status of the Bosporus strait, because patrolling Russian ships can only move down into the Mediterranean through that single bottleneck…:”

In a different piece, he writes

“In the last centuries, Turkey has suffered greatly whenever Russia is on the rise. During the Crimean War, World War I, and the Cold War, it has tried to protect itself through Western alliances. Today, Russian resurgence threatens again.”

Highly recommend you read both pieces if you want good historical perspective of Russian-turkish relations.

But what do we get in return for protecting Turkish sovereignty?

For starters, the president has helped inflame populist sentiment across Europe.

He also orders his cronies to physically assault American citizens exercising their civil liberties in America.

He calls emergency NATO meetings when Turkey shots down Russian aircraft.

And he even frustrates our attempts to defeat ISIS.

Just like any other alliance, this one has become semi-permanent and needs to be reevaluated. We get access to an airbase that probably leads to adventurism in the Middle East. Thats about it.

With the exception of Ukraine itself, no other country should be more alarmed by Crimea than Turkey, yet Turkish leadership behavior has only gotten more brazen.

 

American Versus Russian Intervention

Excellent WaPo piece about American intervention by Simon Waxman.

The point of the article is to lend understanding about why Putin supported a Trump presidency, but what I found most insightful was his point about Putin and Syria.

Of course, Putin does not oppose militant humanitarianism for idealistic reasons. He, too, claims to be a militant humanitarian. In justifying Russian policies toward Syria and Ukraine, Putin and his supporters have explicitly relied on arguments the Clinton administration used in Kosovo. If NATO can stumble into Yugoslavia’s civil war, why can’t Russia do the same in Syria? Indeed, Russia is Syria’s ally, sworn by treaty to protect its government. And if Saddam Hussein’s genocide against Kurds was a reason to violently unseat him from power, then why shouldn’t Russia protect persecuted ethnic Russians, as it has claimed to do in Georgia and Ukraine? If there is a principled difference between the Clinton and Putin approaches to militant humanitarianism, it is that the latter is essentially conservative, seeking to preserve the status quo or restore the status quo ante, and the former is transformative, attempting to build new states along lines preferred by U.S. politicians and strategists.

The rest can be read here.

His homepage is here.

 

What Trump Calls Strength, China Calls Stupidity

That is the title of James Palmer’s recent FP piece.

Here is one bit

Trump might have thought he was signaling a bold willingness to use force to his visitor, but China regards U.S. military might as early U.S. statesman Elbridge Gerry once did the prospect of standing army: “Like a standing member; an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.” China’s happy to gradually extend power elsewhere, especially in its own neighborhood. But it hasn’t gone to war for 38 years, since the last spasms of the Maoist era produced a blundering invasion of Vietnam in 1979. (In that time frame, the United States has gone to war in well over a dozen countries, and Russia in close to a dozen.) Beijing views Washington’s scatter-shot, flip-flop approach to foreign policy — especially in the post-Cold War era — as destabilizing, foolish … and useful.

 

As with all of American blundering in the Middle East, China is the biggest beneficiary of the recent airstrikes in Syria. Not only does it divert attention away from the “region of the future,” it also heightens the suspicions of potential regional rivals, Russia and China. If you want to know why geopolitics has returned, the American use of force in nonstrategic areas is a start.

You can read the rest here.

 

 

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.

 

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 .

Still the best piece on Islamic/Arab terrorism.

Fareed Zakaria’s classic Newsweek essay, “The Politics of Rage: Why do they hate us?” is still the best discussion of the roots of Arab terrorism.

Here is one bit of this work.

America thinks of modernity as all good–and it has been almost all good for America. But for the Arab world, modernity has been one failure after another. Each path followed–socialism, secularism, nationalism–has turned into a dead end. While other countries adjusted to their failures, Arab regimes got stuck in their ways. And those that reformed economically could not bring themselves to ease up politically. The Shah of Iran, the Middle Eastern ruler who tried to move his country into the modern era fastest, reaped the most violent reaction in the Iranian revolution of 1979. But even the shah’s modernization–compared, for example, with the East Asian approach of hard work, investment and thrift–was an attempt to buy modernization with oil wealth.

 

It turns out that modernization takes more than strongmen and oil money. Importing foreign stuff–Cadillacs, Gulfstreams and McDonald’s–is easy. Importing the inner stuffings of modern society–a free market, political parties, accountability and the rule of law–is difficult and dangerous. The gulf states, for example, have gotten modernization lite, with the goods and even the workers imported from abroad. Nothing was homegrown; nothing is even now. As for politics, the gulf governments offered their people a bargain: we will bribe you with wealth, but in return let us stay in power. It was the inverse slogan of the American revolution–no taxation, but no representation either.

 

The new age of globalization has hit the Arab world in a very strange way. Its societies are open enough to be disrupted by modernity, but not so open that they can ride the wave. They see the television shows, the fast foods and the fizzy drinks. But they don’t see genuine liberalization in the society, with increased opportunities and greater openness. Globalization in the Arab world is the critic’s caricature of globalization–a slew of Western products and billboards with little else. For some in their societies it means more things to buy. For the regimes it is an unsettling, dangerous phenomenon. As a result, the people they rule can look at globalization but for the most part not touch it.

For the most part still current and instructive. Do read the entire thing here.

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).

 

Putin and Erdogan’s Marriage of Convenience

Excellent read at the Wilson Center on the evolving and odd relationships between the United States, Turkey, and Russia. In late 2015 Turkey was shooting down Russian fighter jets. In August of 2016, Erdogan was praising his dear friend Putin. This turnabout was largely a result of America’s intervention into Syria.

Here is one bit from the article.

Overnight, America had transformed the Syrian Kurds into a legitimate actor, enabling them to consolidate territorial gains adjoining Turkey. For Ankara, however, this was nothing short of a victory for the hated Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which had been instrumental in the creation of the YPG and waged a decades-long guerrilla war against the Turkish state

Yet, like most American allies, Erdogan is more than happy to free ride on American security treaties.

Still, it would be foolhardy to suggest that Erdogan would contemplate abandoning NATO. Turkey lives under the shadow of the Russian giant — its anger at the United States and its Western allies notwithstanding, it needs the protection the alliance offers. Without it, the Russians would be able to intimidate Ankara at will. Erdogan correctly calculates that he can be a free rider in the alliance, cozying up to Moscow and antagonizing Washington, all the while knowing that the U.S.-Turkish relationship is deeply embedded in NATO.

Do read the entire thing.

The author is Henri Barkey.