A Cautious Approach to Syria
On October 3, Turkey fired artillery into Syria in retaliation for Syrian mortar fire that landed in a Turkish border town, the first time serious fighting occurred across the Turkish-Syrian border since uprisings began a year ago. For four consecutive days, Turkey continued to fire artillery into Syria—all in the midst of heightened rebel activity and Syrian fire along and across the border. On October 10, Turkish warplanes forced a Syrian passenger jet that was travelling from Moscow to Damascus to land because of suspected military cargo, and four days later the Turkish foreign minister confirmed Russian military munitions in the passenger plane and announced a ban on all Syrian aircraft into Turkish airspace.
With the upcoming presidential elections, Obama and Romney have proscribed different American policies toward Syria. Both, however, show a reluctance to further entangle their country in regional politics.
Israel, Iran, and the Nuclear Dilemma
On April 30, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told The Foreign Press Association that ”as long as there is an existential threat to our people, all options to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons should remain on the table.” This statement, while appearing unpromising for the region’s stability, came only five days after Israeli military chief Binyamin Gantz told Ha’aretz, “I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.” American officials and outside analysts recently stated that the chances of a future war had significantly decreased, due to the revival of direct negotiations and greater flexibility from an Iranian government under tighter economic sanctions. This progress, combined with internal disagreements from Israel, suggests the possibility of confronting Iran’s nuclear program without military force.
On April 24, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview with CNN that he would not bet the world’s security on Iran’s rationality, just one day before General Gantz affirmed his belief in the Iranian government’s rationality. Just one day later, Barak said that it appeared unlikely Iran would halt its nuclear program, while at the same time other Israeli officials insisted there was no disagreement in the nation’s leadership on how to approach Iran’s nuclear program. Nonetheless, Barak’s analysis that sanctions were unlikely to succeed contradicted Gantz’s prediction hours earlier that Iran would decide against building a weapon because of weapons and the threat of a military strike.
Other dissenting voices also came from Israel: on April 27, Yuval Diskin, the former head of Israel’s internal security service, criticized Netanyahu and Barak for their messianic leadership and accused the government of misleading the public on the effectiveness of a military strike; Meir Dagan, the former chief of Israel’s spy agency, has frequently criticized the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran. On April 29, former prime minister Ehud Olmert criticized Netanyahu’s foreign policy as disrespectful to the United States and dismissive of the international community and urged against unilateral action.
The divisions between officials in Israel show that there is no monolithic pressure for a military strike. Whatever course of action the US takes going forward, it will have the support of some from Israel and will face dissent from others. Given the flexibility the Iranian leadership displayed in April’s negotiations, perhaps because of the threat of increased sanctions, prospects look promising for a non-military approach to Iran.
A Dignified Retreat From Afghanistan
On April 22, the United States and Afghanistan completed the draft of an 10-year agreement of continued American support after the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014. The agreement came after months of negotiation as the US struggled to retreat gracefully from its 10-year conflict in Afghanistan without leaving too much unrest behind. The US hoped to show, through this agreement, that it was not abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban—though no specific details were hammered out. Its significance, therefore, was more symbolic than substantial.
During his first year in office, President Obama increased American troop presence in Afghanistan while decreasing troop levels in Iraq, all with the goal of pressuring the Taliban to the negotiating table. At the time, Vice President Biden warned of the political and military difficulties accompanying an expanded war, but Obama worried that the war effort would fail without additional troops. By June 2011, a month after Osama bin Laden’s death, Obama declared most of America’s goals in Afghanistan achieved, and began preparing a timetable for withdrawal.
Don’t Forget About Sudan
On April 20, the New York Times reported that Sudanese planes had struck a United Nations compound and an important town inside South Sudan. At the same time, South Sudan claimed it had shot down Sudanese jets and kills hundreds of Sudanese soldiers as it battled over Heglig, an oil-producing region that South Sudan seized from Sudan last week.
When South Sudan seceded from the north on July 9, 2011, the new nation contained most of the oil behind Sudan’s economic growth and received billions of dollars in Western aid. Instead of emerging as the stable, Western-friendly nation that the US and other donors expected, South Sudan has maintained heavily armed militias that have attacked villages and tensions with its north neighbor. When the nations split, it was believed that mutual dependence on oil could hold the nations together: 75 percent of oil is in South Sudan, yet the export pipeline runs through the north. Instead, this interdependence has led to competitive efforts to control the oil – by 2012, both nations seized tankers, shut down wells, and eventually resorted to violence.
A Multilateral Approach to Syria
On April 2, the Syrian government agreed to UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan’s proposal for a withdrawal of security forces from major population centers by April 10 and cease-fire by April 12. However, Syria’s government has a track record of defecting on peace plans, and questions remain on how this cease-fire will be monitored. While some in the US have criticized President Obama for not taking a more active role in overthrowing the Syrian government, the recent memory of unpopular near-unilateral intervention undoubtedly influences current US policy to act through international organizations.
The situation in Syria remains violent and uncertain, precluding an easy solution. The brutal crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists has resulted in an at least 9,000 deaths, and entire clans and villages have been threatened with shelling and forced to flee into neighboring countries. At the same time, Human Rights Watch accused opposition groups of abuses like “kidnapping, detention and torture” against government forces and other supporters of the government. Clearly this conflict is about more than just one unpopular dictator, and efforts to end the conflict therefore should take into account the complexities of the actual situation; simply overthrowing Assad is not enough.
Jumping on the Bandwagon of Kony 2012
After nine years of work to raise awareness about Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, Jason Russell found success on March 5 after posting a video, “KONY 2012,” which instantly attracted more than 50 million views on YouTube and Vimeo. In response to messages from the campaign’s supporters, celebrities like Oprah, Rihanna and Ryan Seacrest began posting about it. On its website, Invisible Children, Russell’s group, emphasizes the time-sensitive nature of the mission to stop and disarm the Lord’s Resistance Army, claiming that “If Kony isn’t captured this year, the window will be gone.”
In addition to the surge of publicity and donations the video has elicited, it has also attracted criticism for failing to mention until halfway through the video that the Lord’s Resistance Army left Uganda years ago; for failing to mention abuses by the Ugandan army; for implying that there are 30,000 child soldiers in Mr. Kony’s army today, when the army is believed to be down to hundreds of fighters; and for spending so much of its money on salaries and publicity efforts instead of programs directly aiding local people. In response, Invisible Children re-affirmed its goals to capture Kony and bring him to justice without defending the Ugandan army or providing it with any funds, yet recognizing that the only way to stop Kony is to coordinate efforts with regional governments.
Riots in Afghanistan: What the US can Learn from Our Mistake
On Feb. 20, American soldiers burned at least four Korans near a detention center in Parwan, setting off riots throughout the nation that killed at least 29 Afghans and 6 American soldiers. American and Afghan investigators pieced together a narrative leading up to the burning that involved avoidable mistakes, but no deliberate malice. The incident apparently started when officers at the Parwan detention center worried that detainees were communicating by writing in library books. They then ordered the burning of over 1,000 books, including several Korans, since there was no space to store these sources of suspicious communication.
News of the burning generated public outrage and resulted in violent riots, prompting the NATO commander in Afghanistan to temporarily withdraw hundreds of military advisers and trainers from Kabul. The continued violence has led to American concern as Afghan security forces, who have been trained over the past few years with billions of American dollars, have increased attacks against American and NATO service members. In January, an Afghan soldier killed four French troops, one of several attacks in the past few months where Afghan soldiers turned on NATO troops. The violence raises questions about the reliability of the Afghan troops, and the possibility of a successful American troop withdrawal that requires the mentoring and training of the local army and police forces.
Understanding the Syrian Opposition
On February 25, Hamas’s prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, publicly announced support for the Syrian uprising and against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad during Friday prayers in Cairo. Hamas’s support for Syria comes after receiving years of weapons and cash support from the Syrian government. The announcement’s location is significant since Egypt’s leaders rejected Hamas when it was supported by Syria. With the support of groups as diverse as Hamas and the United States, the Syrian opposition has nonetheless struggled to make clear progress, as it is hampered by the demands of diverse and sometimes opposing groups.
Composed of varying political exiles, grass-roots organizers and armed militants, the Syrian opposition has gradually transformed from a nonviolent protest into an armed struggle, with constant disagreement on the correct strategy to take on Assad’s government. The Syrian National Council is the closest thing to a unified representation for the opposition, yet it only represents about 70 percent of the opposition groups and suffers from internal divisions.
As We Consider Syria, Remembering Iraq
Unlike the revolutions of many of its fellow Arab states, Syria’s popular uprising has failed to bring substantive changes, resulting instead in a government crackdown and prolonged violence that continues today. In response, on February 16, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown by a wide margin of 137-12, with 17 abstentions. While the decision itself lacked enforceability, it has symbolic significance for President Assad — and, consequentially, drew opposition from Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. With this gesture of condemnation, the US and its allies must now decide exactly what role they want to play in this ongoing conflict, balancing the fears of continued violence with the risks of becoming involved in the internal politics of another Middle Eastern nation.
In condemning President Assad, the resolution called for his resignation, negotiations and the formation of a new government. Russia and China vetoed on the grounds that such a crackdown would allow an outside military force to overthrow the president. This is certainly an option on the table right now, as senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have both made a series of diplomatic, humanitarian and military aid proposals to aid in Assad’s overthrow. The senators argue that by arming the protestors, the US would weaken Syria’s government and, as a consequence, that of Iran, as the two nations share strong ties. While the senators did not say that the US should directly supply the opposition with weapons, they suggested that third parties like the Arab League and “third-world countries” could go as go-betweens.
Reconsidering Guantanamo Bay
On February 8, the New York Times reported on the case of Baidullah Bertola Obaydullah, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who was captured in 2002 for allegedly hiding antitank mines, a claim that has recently been questioned due to the efforts of a military defense investigation that began last year. Perhaps Obaydullah is guilty, but the fact remains that more than three years after President Obama provided directions for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the detention camp remains.
A recent report by Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations for releasing or transferring 600 terror suspects, finding that 27 percent of former detainees “were confirmed or suspected to have been re-engaged in terrorist or insurgent activities.” This report, which criticizes efforts to minimize Guantanamo’s reach, suggests that the detention camp should continue to operate fully. However, the facility will remain a stain on America’s foreign image as long as it continues to exist as a facility accused of torture and imprisonment of hundreds of men without fair trial or objective proof of guilt.
Two’s Company, Three’s A Crowd: Israel, Palestine, and the US Elections
On December 8th, an Israeli airstrike on a busy Gaza City street killed two Palestinians, reportedly terrorists plotting to attack Israel, and also wounded six bystanders. Palestinians responded with rocket fire into southern Israel. The next day, Israeli airstrikes into Gaza accidentally killed a Palestinian man and his 12-year-old son. The attacks were targeted at training sites for Hamas, and the Israeli military described the airstrike as accurate but blamed Hamas for operating in populated areas.
On the same day in the West Bank, a Palestinian protester died as a result of tear gas fired into his skull from an Israeli armored vehicle. In the past two years, Palestinian villagers had gathered every Friday demanding access to a natural spring on land Israeli settlers had taken over, usually resulting in clashes with Palestinians hurling rocks and Israeli officers firing tear gas. The use of tear gas had often been criticized in the past, but Friday’s fatality was the first from these clashes.
Let’s Keep Working with Pakistan
On December 4, President Obama offered “condolences” to Pakistan for the NATO airstrikes that resulted in the deaths of two dozen Pakistani soldiers. A few days ago, the Defense Department advised against formal condolences, at least until a United States military investigation established what went wrong. Some administration aides also worried that a formal apology could hurt Obama’s presidential campaign, but diplomats supported it in an effort to improve deteriorating relations between the two countries. While Obama’s statements did not constitute a full apology, he maintained that the incident was a not a deliberate attack, and sought to maintain a US-Pakistan bilateral relationship that has been shaken by the events of the past few months.
US-Pakistani relations began to sour following Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011, as bin Laden’s long stay in relatively plain sight cast doubts on whether Pakistan’s spy agency was aware of his hideout location. In July, the Obama administration announced the suspension of millions of dollars of aid to pressure the Pakistani army into fighting militants, in response to the expulsion of American military trainers. These decisions affected $800 million of the $2 billion of annual American security assistance to Pakistan, reflecting the internal debate within the Obama administration between the unlikelihood of good US-Pakistani relations and the need to maintain such relations regardless.
Transitions in Egypt
The protests that first began in Egypt ten months ago came from years of economic, social, historic and personal dissatisfaction with the Egyptian government. While the immediate target of these protests, President Hosni Mubarak, stepped down from a 30-year reign after only 18 days without the support of the military or the United States, instability in the country has continued. The United States has come down in favor of democracy, but it also has other considerations-including Egypt’s relations with Israel and the country’s short term stability
In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow, the people of Egypt turned to the military to ease the political transition for the new Egypt. However, the military’s harsh crackdowns and strict laws have led to doubts about its commitment to the revolution’s ideals, and on Friday, President Obama joined the civilian protesters in demanding that the military hand over power to a democratically elected civilian government. In its warnings to military rulers, the Obama administration has upheld civilian control as a defining component of the Arab Spring and demanded a real democratic transition as a prerequisite for American support.
Time for (Climate) Change?
On Friday, a UN panel reported that human-induced climate change is at least partly responsible for the extreme weather seen around the world. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007, issued a report that took a more cautious position than some of the research suggests, perhaps in response to the criticism it received for minor factual errors in its 2007 report.
Nonetheless, the IPCC report stated that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity have contributed to record-high temperature and fewer record lows, greater coastal flooding and more extremes of precipitation. The report called on world governments to increase efforts to protect people and reduce the risk of catastrophes.
Withdrawal from Iraq: An Opportunity in a Failure
On October 21, President Obama announced the departure of all American troops by the end of the year, marking the end to a controversial eight-year war. Ostensibly, this decision was motivated by the failure of American and Iraqi leaders to agree on the immunity status of American troops. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq is the legacy of questionable decisions made in Iraq since the September 11 attacks more than 10 years ago.
President Bush ordered the start of the Iraq war on March 19, 2003, hours after the expiration of an ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to leave the country. By April 9, Saddam Hussein’s rule had collapsed, leaving American troops to face a new enemy of Baathists, paramilitary fighters, former Iraqi soldiers and foreign militants who opposed American occupation. By 2006, a CNN survey found that 60 percent of Americans opposed the war, and the majority of respondents also favored the withdrawal of at least some troops from Iraq. Iraqi civilian deaths also peaked in 2006, with estimates ranging from 1,000 to 3,500 per month.