Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A CWCP Conversation: ISIS

Over the past week, Brad Nelson, CWCP President and Co-Founder (and adjunct professor of political science at Saint Xavier University) and Yohanes Sulaiman, CWCP Vice President and Co-Founder (and Lecturer at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani) discussed over e-mail the infamous Islamic State, or ISIS.

Brad Nelson: We haven't spent much time on the blog discussing ISIS. Given the plethora of ISIS-related events in the news, it's about time we do so. So, just to make sure that our readers are all caught up, let's start with the basics. What is ISIS? How would you define that group? And how is it different from al-Qaeda?

Yohanes Sulaiman: The more I read about ISIS, the more interesting I find the group. ISIS is popularly known as a group of radical Jihadists who rule its territory with terror.

At the same time, I think ISIS is less of a religious-based terrorist group than the remnants of a deep state that has gone underground. Unlike al-Qaeda, which to some degree is dominated by religious zealots; for ISIS, religion is important, but not that important, considering former Saddam's Iraqi intelligence/military officers basically became the core of this movement. In fact, I am not sure how important al-Baghdadi is, aside from just being a "big brother" figure.

As a result, I think we have a different fight going on here. In the case of al-Qaeda, cut the head and all is gone. I think al-Qaeda still has not recovered from the assassination of Osama bin Laden. If I am right, that ISIS is actually a deep state apparatus, then ISIS is far more dangerous than al-Qaeda, which to some degree is contrary to the common wisdom: many think ISIS will be destroyed simply because it is too radical for its own good, while al-Qaeda can survive far much longer.

BN: Here is how I think of ISIS: it's an insurgent group that's fighting against government and allied forces, as well as other forces of course, in Iraq and Syria. It's also a state. ISIS has its own governing body, laws and punishment mechanisms, military force, currency, PR-machine, and sources of revenue, among other things. Surely, this state has come into existence illegally and no one recognizes it, but it's there. Lastly, it's a terrorist organization, as the attacks in Paris, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, and San Bernadino attest.

Now, it can be argued that ISIS is suffering on all three dimensions--at least at the moment. It's losing territory and fighters, losing revenue, as oil facilities have been destroyed, and losing its grip over the people, as citizens and even some ISIS Jihadis caught in the actual Islamic State want to leave. Moreover, al-Baghdadi recently put out a video trying to rally Muslims to fight for ISIS and to launch attacks in their homelands. This has been viewed by terrorist experts as a sign of ISIS's current desperation.

As we know, ISIS was formally al-Qaeda in Iraq, thus an off-shoot or affiliate of al-Qaeda Central. The story of ISIS deciding to split and rebrand itself, as well as the ex-communication of ISIS from the al-Qaeda family, has typically emphasized ISIS's excessive barbarity--that there were disagreements over ISIS's austere vision of the world and its willingness to torture and kill all infidels, even fellow Muslims; ISIS leaders and followers thought it all necessary, though al-Qaeda saw it as bad for the brand. There's even the popular argument, put forward by Greame Wood, that ISIS, relative to al-Qaeda, is much more of an apocalyptic religious cult.

I see it differently. The main difference is that ISIS is far less religiously pure than al-Qaeda; and relatedly, as a whole, ISIS is not nearly as ideologically cohesive as many believe. Many of ISIS' followers know very little about Islam and the Koran. There are even reports of some of the Paris attackers having "Islam for Dummies" books in their possession. What ISIS seems to be attracting is a motley crew of the angry, alienated, and criminal, especially the latter. Terror experts have observed that quite a few ISIS recruits and foot soldiers are gangsters who dabble in things like the drug trade and robberies. I see quite a bit of John Mueller's argument about the centrality of "Thugs, Criminals and Hooligans" in violent incidents--from his 2000 International Security article and his book Remnants of War--in ISIS.

YS: Frankly, I don't think that members of al-Qaeda are more knowledgeable than ISIS in term of religious instruction. Based on what we know of their franchise all over the world (e.g. Boko Haram and Jamaah Islamiyah), most of their recruits don't know much about theology. Exhibit A: there were no theology students among the 19 suicide attackers on 9/11. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda dip from the same recruitment pool, and this is why al-Qaeda is losing: ISIS is flashier and cooler and, more importantly, winning.

The main difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS is that the former still has religious thinkers on its board because it’s an extremist fundamentalist group; ISIS, on the other hand, like I mentioned earlier, was created from the remnants of Saddam Hussein's deep state, and the core of the deep state (and ISIS) is the secular intelligence apparatus. Thus, you could have a very high ranking ISIS leader who used to be a high ranking officer in Saddam's intelligence apparatus, who wasn't religiously observant. In fact, when this former Saddam official was finally captured, the one book that wasn't found on him was a Qur'an.

BN: So what are your thoughts about the Paris and San Bernardino attacks? And have the media and analysts missed anything in their assessments of both incidents?

YS: I think the media has thoroughly dissected these two cases, from the dysfunctional law enforcement in Belgium to the missing warning signs in the terrorists’ Facebook posts. My question is that with all the pipe bombs the two terrorists were supposedly making, why carry out a mass shooting? I think it was a spur of a moment crime, and they probably had different target in mind.

And actually this shows that badly planned attacks can still cause a lot of deaths if the perpetrators have the proper weapon. Acquiring and shooting guns is relatively easy. But if they decide to bomb a mall or some other soft location, it would take much more preparation and effort and there might be a higher risk of arrest.

BN: Here’s what struck me. One of the narratives after both attacks was that ISIS was now going global. After all, it seemed like ISIS was consumed with establishing, expanding and consolidating its control over areas in Iraq and Syria. The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the downed Russian airliner, so went the conventional wisdom, show that maybe ISIS has its eye on local matters--its caliphate--as well as global bullies and infidels--France, the US and Russia. Another suggestion has been that ISIS launches these attacks so as to distract its faithful from the losses it’s suffered in 2015 and to boost morale. Perhaps, but is ISIS now chewing off more than it can handle? Was it or is it currently ready for what lies ahead. Arguably, ISIS has provoked--whether intentionally or unintentionally, or a combination--more countries to take the ISIS threat more seriously, to the point that we might have already witnessed the apex of ISIS.

YS: On biting more than it can handle: yes and no. Yes, in that everyone on the planet is out to get ISIS. While the Taliban or al-Qaeda still, arguably, receive some tacit support from a state, or at least a powerful element within the state, ISIS, as far as I know, does not really have a state supporting them -- well, arguably Syria, where Bashar is currently using ISIS to tar entire opposition with the same broad brush, or, according to Russia's insinuations, Turkey, because of getting profit from the illegal oil trade. But I'd make an argument that it is not so much real support than war profiting/opportunism, not unlike the dealings between the Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats militias/criminal gangs during the height of Balkan conflict.

But at the same time, ISIS benefits from the fact that no country is willing to put boots on the ground, or to strictly target it. Russia and Syria, I argue, are far more interested in keeping them alive to become a bogeyman to prop up Bashar's regime. Despite the downing the airliner, Putin, I think, considers ISIS far more useful alive than dead, at least for now. Of course, there are repercussions, but Putin is a long-term player, and he will settle this once he is done with Syria and Turkey. The US? Well, Obama currently has zero credibility in the region and he'd prefer the Iraqis to do the heavy lifting, but in the end, despite the Iraqis' gains in the past couple of weeks, it will not last, simply because Iraq at this point is a quasi-state, unable to completely impose order. The EU? Not likely. Saudis? They fear Iran more than ISIS, for sure.

Of course, the question is what ISIS itself thinks. I think the leadership believes that ISIS is in quite desperate straits. The terror attacks are calculated to inspire, to get more recruits on board, and at the same time broaden their appeals (to e.g. Boko Haram or al Shabaab) as to supplant al-Qaeda. It’s probably the case that the rank and file are over-confident in their abilities to withstand any attacks from the infidels -- e.g. they believe that they are impervious to bullets, etc., thus willingly approve the leaders' decision as actually a way to broaden the scope of their attacks.

BN: Well, ISIS does receive a material boost from Turkey, as black market oil, much like Putin suggested, has found its way into Turkey; not to mention, there's the distinct possibility that Turkey, whether knowingly or not, gives ISIS sanctuary on its turf. Syria, and to extent Russia, has helped ISIS for more than a year by not targeting the group, focusing instead on the so-called "moderates" and their strongholds. But there's no cooperation between Assad and ISIS, as has been rumored by conspiratorial-types. Max Abrahms has addressed this repeatedly on his Twitter feed.

Anyway, one of the things that your comment assumes is that ISIS leadership has sanctioned and thought-through all of the recent attacks. I don't think so. In fact, the evidence to date indicates it's ISIS sympathizers and followers who are acting on their own. That matters. It matters because it means that ISIS isn't necessarily directing events, like some evil mastermind; rather, events are being thrust upon them, from all sorts of directions.

YS: I do agree that ISIS isn't necessarily directing events but at the same time, it does actively encourage its supporters to hit soft targets, meaning that ISIS does sanction any attacks committed by its supporters.

BN: Okay, last topic, which concerns the dreaded questions about prognostication. Put simply, where is ISIS a year from now? For instance, what does the group look like, in terms of its organization/structure, its power, its ability to launch attacks globally, its state in Iraq/Syria, and so on?

YS: It depends on several factors: whether the US-Iran deal holds or collapses, Russia's commitments in Syria, and the Saudis-Iran relationship.

The Iran deal most likely holds and I think, regardless who succeeds Obama, it would be a bad policy to reverse it, despite that the enforcement mechanism is purely minimal -- because like it or not, there's no other option except to bomb Iran to stone age. Plus, Iran does matter to ensure stability in the region, well except to Saudi Arabia.

Russia will keep attacking but they are not specifically targeting ISIS. Rather, Moscow would prefer to focus on anti-Assad groups, which to some degree might cause many groups to gravitate further to ISIS.

So it is a very mixed bag. ISIS’s ability to launch global attacks is based on whether it remains a credible actor, in the sense that they are viewed within Jihadi circles as winning, victorious—which, in turn, helps the group to attract more support and fighters. But once ISIS is seen as losing, not dissimilar to al Qaeda, it would lose its ability to launch global attacks. Since it is getting harder and harder to gain spectacular victories like the battle for Mosul, they will up their push to persuade their sympathizers to launch more attacks.

To answer your question: the group will probably be hemmed in, but it will end up like the Taliban: entrenched in areas that are difficult to control effectively. ISIS has suffered a lot of turnover in its leadership due to deaths, so it will end up having lots of battlefield commanders, who are more interested in short term victories.

BN: I tend to agree with your overall point: that the war in Syria and Iraq will remain frozen conflict and ISIS will have a continued, but gradually shrinking, strong on-the-ground presence, or strongholds, in both countries. Of course, a key is how much turf ISIS loses this year. Mostly thanks to the Kurds, ISIS lost about 25% of its occupied territory in 2015; how much more does it lose in 2016? I'm interested to see how ISIS reacts to, and is impacted by, a steady stream of battle losses--if that indeed comes to pass. Does it violently lash out even more in the West to compensate for the losses? Do radical Islamists, seeing that victory for ISIS isn't inevitable anymore, gravitate back to al-Qaeda?

The trajectory of ISIS’s success or failure, as you suggested, will be shaped by a number of factors. Especially in light of this past weekend's news, one of the things I'm looking at is the Sunni-Shia divide, with Saudi Arabia and Iran as the leaders of each sect, each of which is seeking to be the regional hegemon in the Middle East. This divide has shaped--really, prolonged--the conflict in Syria. As you know, the tit-for-tat confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran has escalated because of the execution of a Shia cleric by Saudi Arabia--which has triggered Shia protests throughout the Middle East, the complete diplomatic estrangement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a deterioration between Saudi Arabia’s allies, like Bahrain and Sudan and the UAE, and Iran. These events will probably only serve to intensify the violence in the Middle East and make it even more difficult to stop and solve the civil war in Syria. How all of this impacts ISIS will be something to watch going forward.

BN: What's your take on how the current Iran-Saudi Arabia spat will impact ISIS?

YS: My gut feeling is that al-Qaeda is on life-support, with very little initiatives, and out-staged by ISIS. Even al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria were defeated/absorbed by ISIS. There are still other branches, but they are all doing their own thing with little to no coordination from above. Many of its affiliates are still aligned with al-Qaeda simply because of old connections. I would even question whether the head organization could survive at this rate without its alliance with the Taliban. So I am not sure that even with the defeat of ISIS, the jihadist community would flock back to al-Qaeda.

ISIS, I think, will try to remain relevant by trying to do more attacks, especially on Western targets. But with the recent Paris attack, I think Western intelligence agents are starting to wise up. It will be very difficult, not impossible but harder, to pull off another Paris.

Still, I think people are underestimating ISIS’s ability to survive even if Iraq/Syria is pacified. After all, there are still plenty of failed states in the region: Libya, Sinai Peninsula, and Yemen. Granted, if ISIS headquarters does move, it will likely be a much different organization, one that’s most likely not staffed by former Iraqis intelligence personnel. Alas, that’s part of the adaptation that terror groups face.

The current Iran-Saudi Arabia spat, I think, will have a greater impact on the stability of Iraq, simply because I doubt the Saudis are content to see an Iranian dominated regime standing next door. Upping its game to undermine Iran’s position in Iraq, if this comes to reality, will give much needed breathing room for ISIS.

BN: You hit on an important point regarding the whack-a-mole element to today's terrorism, which is abetted by so many weak and failing states in close proximity to each other. If ISIS gets really squeezed in Iraq and Syria, it wouldn't surprise me to see its leadership and foot soldiers gravitate to another landing spot. ISIS has already made in-roads in Afghanistan and Libya. My guess is Libya, since the group would face a tough fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

That said, the Saudi Arabia-Iraq imbroglio makes me question how committed Riyadh is to containing and eliminating ISIS. As you mentioned above, Iran is the regime's biggest threat and that's what the royal family is most concerned about. By inflaming the rivalry with Iran, Saudi Arabia made just made it easier on itself to get distracted from the global terrorism issue. In fact, at this moment, it's become a distracting issue for all sorts of players in the Middle East: local states are taking sides in the dispute and outside states are seeking to ways to de-escalate the Riyadh-Tehran, as well as the more general Sunni-Shia, tensions. In my view, the pressure has been markedly reduced on ISIS right now.

YS: The Saudi philosophy is always "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and thus it is willing to fund radical movements or even armed insurgencies that could bite it in the rear in the future. Granted, the the US also has this problem (e.g. funding the Mujahedeen back in the 1980s). But while the US has wised up in the past couple of years, the Saudis seems to have learned nothing—or maybe they just think that someone else will clean their mess, I don't know. But my gut feeling is that they will try to increase funding to the Syrian rebels, regardless of their ideological affiliations, and since the rebels' loyalties themselves are very fluid, it won't surprise me that some of the money simply ends up in ISIS coffers--and thus, like you said, helping putting off the pressure on ISIS. Obviously ISIS doesn't have much love for the Saudis ruling family, but they hate the Shiites more. And I think the Saudis think they can just kick that can down the road further.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Paris Terror Attacks: An American Perspective

Large-scale terrorism in Europe is, of course, nothing new. Recall the train bombing in Spain in 2004, and the 7/7 terror bombings in London. Now, however, if Daesh (the Arabic name for Islamic State that the group does not want outsiders to use, hence why I use it) is truly to blame for the attacks, as it so claims, it represents a shift in its global strategy.

France's President François Hollande has vowed to fight the terrorists continually and "without mercy." Indeed, France has time and again shown itself to be an active partner in the global fight against terror and has upped its involvement in the Middle East and North Africa. In recent years France has been a large contributor to international security missions, such as Operation Serval (it's military mission in Mali). In terms of the international operations against Daesh, it began its airstrikes in Iraq in 2014, and recently began its airstrike campaign in Syria, while later moving an aircraft carrier off the Syrian coast.

One must not underestimate the psychological effect the attacks already have had, and will continue to have, on the French people. The country already suffered one bloody attack in January, and this time the attackers did not strike major tourist venues like the Eiffel Tower or Versailles, but rather entertainment venues, places where people come precisely to relax.

As someone who utterly lacks experience or a respectable knowledge of terrorism, I couldn't, in all good consciousness, try to offer an analysis of the attacks themselves. Nevertheless, I feel I can offer a few thoughts on the US reaction to the attacks.

One telling aspect of the reaction to this tragedy is the outpouring of support for the French people from across the US. For some strange reason, which I've never been able to figure out, I've long had a fascination with the France-US relationship and the way our two populations view each other. A certain amount of Francophobia certainly pervades in American popular thinking, although it is, for the most part, completely harmless. Yet, from what I've noticed among my own friends, there has been a more pronounced outpouring of support for France and its people than I'd expected. People who otherwise never discuss international issues have been changing Facebook profile pictures and posting statuses of support for France.

According to one expert (Jean Benoît Nadeau in Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong, if I'm not mistaken), one of the biggest misunderstandings in the France-US relationship is that Americans tend to see the French as intransigent for not always following the US in lockstep, and for being more vocal in its public criticism of the US. The French, on the other hand, see no reason why two countries can be friends and still have their public "lovers spats" every now and again.

Indeed, France's operations against Daesh, while part of the US-led coalition, have also been highly independent in nature. France is, and often has been, willing to act on its own even during the era of trans-national alliances. Recall that Charles DeGaulle was willing to pull France from NATO's operational structure when he felt the Atlantic Alliance did not serve the interests of La Republique. Some may see France's tendency to go its own way as some sort of Gallic unwillingness to be a part of a team. Yet for me, France's willingness to work with its allies while maintaining a certain degree of independence means that France is self-confident, unique, and is in fact a team player in its own special way.

Now the question remains as to how much the recent attacks will affect France's operations against Daesh. Recall that after the train bombings in Spain in 2004, the Spanish public voted the conservative government of José Maria Aznar out of office in favor of the left-wing PSOE. Aznar had been an ardent supporter of Gorge W. Bush's mission to Iraq, and the bombings, claimed by al-Qaeda, were deliberately timed ahead of the Spanish elections so as to influence public opinion and ultimately induce them to vote for a government that would pull Spanish troops from Iraq. And that's exactly what happened. 

For now, it seems that France has determined not to allow the attacks to dissuade her or let her become a prisoner of fear. Nevertheless, as with the US after 9/11, France will likely change to a degree. To say that France "will never the same again" may be an exaggeration, for it isn't as if Europe hasn't known mass terror before. Yet from all this we can glean two things: when push comes to shove, France and the US are solid allies, our disagreements and rivalries notwithstanding; and now the time has come where France must show her resolve and determination not only to Daesh but to the rest of the world, lest those who perished did so in vain.

Monday, September 28, 2015

What Does Russia's Larger Role in Syria Mean For the US?

Russian SU-25 jets on runway at al-Assad airbase in Syria last week (Telegraph)
Russian jets at a Syrian air force base in mid-September. Photo: Telegraph.

Russia has upped its military assistance to Syria, sending troops, tanks, and aircraft in recent weeks, all in an attempt to shore up the government's defense against various anti-Assad groups. The US isn't happy, at least publicly. It disagrees with the idea and practice of propping up Assad, believing that “it is the Assad regime that has been a magnet for extremists inside Syria,” according to State Department Spokesman John Kirby. In other words, Assad is the root of the problem; he must go, either today or in the near-future.

Moreover, the US wants to be kept abreast and consulted on Russian moves in and plans for in Syria, and it hasn’t. In fact, at this point, the US isn’t totally sure what Russian President Putin has up his sleeve and was caught off-guard at the rapid deployment of force in Syria.

What should America make of all this? And how does Russia's deployments impact US policy? My analysis below shows that these events are at best a mixed bag for the US.

The Good

The good part is that Russia might own the Syria problem, getting Team Obama off the hook. After all, it’s readily apparent that Barack Obama doesn’t want anything to do with the conflict, fearing that any involvement with military force is a trap that would eventually, drip by drip, suck the US further into the conflict and violence.

Also, keep in mind that air strikes have done almost nothing to slow the tide of ISIS. Plus, the arming and training of the so-called Syrian moderates has translated to less than a handful of troops ready to enter the battle against ISIS—a multi-billion dollar disaster for The White House. Why not let someone else deal with that mess? Who cares if it’s Russia, America’s current foe?

Does Russia’s assertiveness circumscribe, or even limit, Iran’s nefarious role in Syria? It’s something to think about. It’s possible that Putin is communicating to Iran and its proxies that Syria is Russia’s battleground, that it rules the roost there, not them. And at this point, it does certainly seem like any military and political solution goes first and primarily through Russia, rather than Iran.

Syria, after all, is Russia’s last foreign military outpost beyond the post-Soviet space and is very protective and territorial about what happens there—not only concerned about America’s infringement on its self-declared turf but also about regional meddlers as well. In the end, a watered-down role for Iran in Syria, if it comes to pass, is probably a good thing for regional stability.

Plus, the added benefit is that if Russia gets dragged into a prolonged war in Syria, it will become weakened and distracted over time—thereby putting a noose around Putin’s global ambitions. Syria could potentially become its Afghanistan, which bled the Soviets dry in the 1980s. And consider this: even if its adventures in Syria aren’t sky-high costly, they could still greatly impact Russia. After all, though things are quiet there now, Russia is still engaged in a low-intensity, churning struggle in Ukraine. Can Moscow really fight two protracted limited wars (Ukraine and Syria) simultaneously? Putin should ask George W. Bush how such grandiose, ambitious military escapades turn out.

And finally, maybe, just maybe, however unlikely, Putin might even help to put a dent in the ISIS/AQ networks—which would serve to benefit US interests.

The Bad

Unfortunately, Russian intervention probably only prolongs the violence in Syria, and by extension Iraq. That’s what the literature on civil wars indicates. External assistance and intervention lengthens the shelf-life of these wars—keeping them in motion when they would otherwise fizzle out or end decisively.

Russian force reinforces Assad’s grip on power—something that the US doesn’t really want to see. It’s for years called for the ouster of Assad, and failing that, a managed transition to democracy with Assad overseeing its implementation. Russian moves clearly muck up US policy on Syria, shredding years of strategizing, training and equipping, and billions of dollars.

What happens to the moderates? These are the guys and gals who the US hopes will one day replace Assad atop the throne. There’s speculation that Russian power will be used to target ISIS as well as US-trained soldiers, because anyone and everyone who opposes Assad is the enemy in the eyes of Russia. Without moderates being an active part of the plan in Syria going forward, where does that leave the country? And how will US allies look at America if it allows its friends in Syria to get annihilated?

The US shouldn't be surprised that others are stepping up to the plate at this point, given how little it's done over the years. In fact, that's a risk the US took by adopting an extreme low-cost strategy. Power abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes, and that’s what we’re seeing right now. Team Obama has acted as if all the major players would wait for it to get its act together, but that’s simply not happening. Instead, Iran, Iraq, Assad, and Russia are starting to coordinate with each other on politics and security affairs in Syria, with Russia taking the leadership mantle. And that, in turn, raises the prospect of the US getting squeezed out of any influence on what happens from here on in the war and any post-war outcomes.

Russia’s escalation also exposes a fatal failure of Obama grand strategy. I know I've previously written on the blog that Obama's grand strategy is similar to selective engagement, but I've rethought that argument. His critics are right; he really doesn’t have a grand strategy at all. His foreign policy is risk-averse and low-cost, but I'm not sure that one can build a grand strategy with those things at the heart of it. The reason is because such an approach is utterly devoid of interests and values, and without those elements US foreign policy is and will remain rudderless.

Let’s apply this logic to Syria. What kinds of outcomes does Obama most prefer? Which ones would be merely acceptable? Which tools of American power can best produce those outcomes? What interests are on the line for the US? Which values should guide US policymaking on Syria? Who (within Syria, the Middle East and beyond) should the US work with to achieve its desired outcomes? Quite frankly, Team Obama would have a hard time answering those questions—as it has in answering similar ones for the past three plus years—because it is fixated on the price of the America’s commitment to Syria, not so much on the substance of US policy on Syria.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A CWCP Conversation: The Refugee/Migrant Crisis

Syrian Refugees in Greece
Refugees crossing from Greece into Macedonia. Image: Giannis Papanikos/Associated Press

Brad Nelson: Let's start with the basic question: In your view, what's causing the waves of migrants and refugees to swarm to Europe?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Europe is relatively close and willing to put up with them? The Gulf countries simply don't care enough, though not without reason: an influx of millions of refugees would create a huge demographic nightmare. Despite the rhetoric of "religious and Arab solidarity," the demographic politics remain critical. Think about Jordan, which never grants the Palestinians citizenship, with the Palestinians severely underrepresented in the parliament (see here). The delicate tribal politics (see here and here) would be upended by millions of refugees who don't have any loyalty to any tribe.

So religious and Arab solidarity could all go to hell, because by the end of the day, it is realpolitik that counts.

BN: Yeah, that's one aspect of it--the why Europe, as opposed to other countries, regions. The other part is what they're leaving behind. And that's violence and repression in places like Eritrea and Sudan and Syria and Afghanistan and Libya. That's the obvious group of people, but not the only ones. Interestingly--and this is something that's rarely noted--some of the migrants, although probably a small slice of them, are actually from Europe. These are people from struggling European economies like Greece looking to escape poverty and find a better life in a fellow EU nation.

I'm curious to hear your take on the domestic political fallout from refugee/migrant crisis. What do you think happens politically as a result of all this?

YS: Well, the photo of the dead Kurdish boy helped to galvanize public opinion, especially in Europe, in support of the refugees. But that image could only help for so far and for a very short time period. And Merkel did realize that - the backlash of seeing thousands of refugees at the train stations going to Germany was badly damaging to Merkel.

Merkel is probably one of the most ablest chancellors in Germany, in terms of her astute ability to gauge public opinion. She had to do something about the refugee problem, or at least give an illusion of control, otherwise her party would riot -- and that actually had already happened.

BN: I'm interested to see how this plays out domestically across Europe going forward. Already, the right is rising and expanding in various European countries, and this crisis could further tip the balance in that direction. For years the European right has complained about immigrants overburdening state resources, threatening Europe's traditional way of life, and contributing to Islamic extremism and terrorism. It's no surprise, really, to see spikes in populism, given that European economies have struggled with growth and debt and unemployment problems. Well, for the right, the refugee/migrant crisis probably exacerbates those three aforementioned points. And if we see right-leaning, perhaps even far-right, governments popping up into power as a result of this fiasco, what happens then? Predictions?

YS: Worst case scenario: collapse of the EU project.

But at the same time, while the share of people voting for the right has been increasing, most of the "right-leaning" governments have not done much to rock the boat. For example, look at Hungary: even though there are a lot of complaints that the government there has been curtailing freedoms, it is still interested in staying with EU. In Norway, the Progress Party, which is in the right part of the spectrum, is actually part of the ruling coalition and as far as I know, behaves quite responsibly.

I think, while far-right parties might benefit from the anti-immigrant backlash, should they actually become part of more European governments, they would actually behave rather responsibly. However, I might be wrong, because there were two cases that would serve as counterarguments: the Fascists and the Nazis.

BN: Let's move the discussion to the elephant in the room, at least it's an elephant in American policy debates. Does the US bear any responsibility in this mess? And if so, what should Team Obama do about it?

YS: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that this entire refugee crisis could have been contained to some degree had the entire region not been engulfed in war for the past several years. The "red line," declared by Obama, was a major policy blunder. It emboldened the Syrian regime, led to the rise of ISIS, and worse, destroyed any hope for quick a resolution. After all, people don't start leaving until they think that there's no future in the land!

But to dump everything on Obama's lap is also wrong, because at the end of the day, there's really few things that he could have done, aside from putting boots on the ground, which would also be unpopular. So his options have been limited.

These two might sound contradictory, because on one hand I essentially said that the US could have done much and on the other hand, there are political constraints. The political constraints happen due to inaction: that after a while of doing nothing, the problem snowballed, and at a certain point there was nothing Obama could have done, except if he was really willing to bear significant political costs. Had Obama grown some spine and acted earlier, at least during the "red line" fiasco, that could have limited the refugee problem.

BN: Here's my take. Of course, the main blame rests with ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Assad and his henchmen. That said, for a while now, I've thought--though I don't remember if I made the case on this blog--that the US should have created and enforced safe zones in Syria.

No, they wouldn't be a panacea, because, given the number of people fleeing the area, the safe zones would eventually fill up and the refugees would have look elsewhere for sanctuary. Plus, sure, safe zones would be difficult to execute in practice, and they would've run the risk of America getting sucked into the civil war there.

Nevertheless, the risk was and probably still is worth it, as it would've helped alleviate some of the political and security and humanitarian problems we see now--in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and throughout Europe. Moreover, if the US was simply creating humanitarian corridors, not militarily intervening in the fight in Syria, I think Obama could have gotten several countries plus a number of international institutions and organizations to assist with the effort, boosting its chances of "succeeding."

YS: The question, of course, is whether there was the political will to do something if the safe zones became endangered. By definition, the safe zone is another red line, and Obama has demonstrated little appetite to act strongly. He is a very safe player, a cautious president, and he never take risks. If you look at his accomplishments, none of them entails taking any risk. Putting a safe zone means taking some risks of escalation from Assad.

I think aside from Obama administration's own reluctance to get involved, the other reason why the safe-corridor doesn't exist is Turkey. Face it, the corridor would benefit the Kurds the most, strengthening the de-facto Kurdish state in Syria and Iraq, which Turkey is loath to see.

BN: You're right. There's the chance that a safe zone plan could force the US to become ever more involved militarily. That's the risk. But by not taking that gamble, the US has been complicit in thousands of people getting hurt and killed, and in millions more fleeing their homes to nearby countries. I also think there were things the US could have done to reduce chances of escalation, had such humanitarian corridors been created. For instance, the US could have communicated to Assad that it wasn't seeking regime change, that it was only interested in the welfare of the people caught in the crossfire of violence. It also could have pledged to ensure the territorial integrity of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, that safe zones were not a prelude to the break-up of those states. Would those pledges be credible? Maybe, if the US was willing to put in the effort to create a real, viable international coalition that included neutral parties like the UN.

YS: You do realize by proclaiming that the US doesn't want a regime change in Syria, the US would have handed Assad a huge diplomatic coup, which he then would broadcast all over the region, and that, in turn, would piss off the Saudis and the Turks, and whoever else out there?

BN: If giving people an opportunity to be safe is the goal, does that matter? Probably not--at least it wouldn't to me, if I was in Obama's position. I think we're getting at problem with leadership decision-making, especially as it works nowadays in the US.

At times leaders think that by making a decision--or avoiding one--they can have their cake and it too. It would be nice, I suppose, but real world politics rarely works that way. Most decisions, or the absence of making them, will make some people/groups/states happy and anger and alienate others. The trick is to win the balance. Obama thought he could win all sides--here in the US and abroad--by staying out of it and acting as a peripheral player, by being the anti-W. Bush. My main point: no matter which way Obama moved in Syria, there would've been challenges and difficulties. He choose the simplest path, to do almost nothing. That backfired massively. Inaction allowed the rise of ISIS and other extremists, the elimination of the so-called moderates, the probable permanent fracturing of Syria, and now, the strengthened position and centrality of Russia in this bloody mess.

YS: While the goal is noble, it would have riled up the Saudis even further (well, with the Iran deal in pipeline, they'd be pissed off anyway). But now that I think about it, in a de-facto way, Obama has given the assurance that Assad's position is no longer in danger -- just look at the"train the moderates militia" fiasco, where many simply refused to join because one of the requirements is that the militia can only be used to fight ISIS, not Assad. So maybe you are right, that Obama could have told Assad that he is no longer in danger as long as he goes along with an international effort to keep the refugees safe.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

An Excerpt from Amalie Flynn's Wife and War

It is my pleasure to post an excerpt from the wonderful writer and poet Amalie Flynn's memoir, Wife and War. You might recall that we interviewed Amalie back in 2012. You can find that interview here. We at CWCP are big fans of her work. Indeed, I find her writing very accessible and moving, making the consequences of war and violence real and vivid. She takes readers to places that many scholars and analysts and pundits don't go or don't even think about. We hope you enjoy.




I am thinking about movement today.

I am thinking about movement and about its absence.

            About a bomb lodged underneath the unarmored Ford pickup truck my husband drives, every single day, up and down the road they call the Highway of Death. About how a bomb will force his pickup, up, into the air, and how it will force his body, up, into the air. About how his head may blow up or fly, fly across the road, his head, and land somewhere else.

            I am thinking about how, here, at home, time feels like it is standing still while my husband is away. And about how time marches on. About how horrible this deployment is, but, as the days turn into months, how it has gotten easier, and even more enjoyable, this time I have now, time which is only my time.

            I am thinking about America. This country I live in, about how we all seem to pretend the war is not happening. Because I am thinking about movement today, thinking about movement and about its absence.


            I watch the news, sitting, here, on my bed, which used to be our bed, except, now, my husband is gone. And I am watching the war on television again, this footage that has been edited and squeezed into something that can fit between two commercials. How this war has become a product, packaged into tearful homecomings and loyal dogs and sweet wives.

            I have seen this happen before.

            How 9/11 was turned into a tourist attractions. T-shirts and car decals and miniature Twin Tower snow globes.

            But the truth, I say, out loud, to the television.

            The truth is something different.

            The truth is that war and terror are this. An amputated leg, a dead body, a road littered with bombs, a lost country, with children, children like ours, living in war, and soldiers coming home, soldiers who have given so much, that they have nothing else to give.




            When you are a military wife, your life is full of holes.

            Your husband goes to war.

            He is gone. And there is a hole in the calendar, the hole where days fall and never come back, where time has stopped but still goes on. And while he is gone, you think about it, about what can happen. You think about him getting killed. And about how, how they will lower him into a hole, dug into the ground, a flag draped over the coffin. You think about him getting shot, a hole in his head, where the doctors will put a metal plate. You think about him getting blown up, blown up by a roadside bomb, his right leg amputated, that missing limb. And you don’t know yet. You don’t know about the other holes. More holes, the holes that will come later, if you are lucky, lucky enough, and he comes home alive.

            My husband has been gone for one year.

            And I think about it, about what can happen, all the time. As I lay, in our bed, a hole next to me, this space where his body used to be.

            On 9/11, I fell, down, in the street,

            After the Tower fell, down, behind me.

            A man I did not know lifted me up,

            His fingers in my armpits,

            Asking me, a thick German accent,

            What is your name and how, when I told him,

            He smiled, repeating it, Amalie

            Because my name is German too,

            Pointing up, to a window,

            On the side of an office building,

            And I followed him up a fire escape,

            Into an empty room, empty desks, empty chairs,

            Sitting in a chair at a desk, someone else’s.

            And using the telephone, calling my mother,

            Saying the words I am still alive.

            Now my husband is calling me, calling me from a payphone in Kabul, his voice, almost lost, in static, telling me, how, he is still alive. And I know. I know what those words mean. How they really mean, I almost died today.


            It is early morning in Afghanistan, not even five your time, I say, into the telephone, to my husband, who is breathing, back, to me, on the other end. And I am distracted, because I am busy, driving somewhere, the radio on, and our son, talking, in the backseat.

            I say, it’s your Daddy, to my son, but into the telephone, to my husband, who is standing at the front of a long line, ready, in full battle rattle, helmet, armor, fatigues, boots, and gun, but waiting, waiting for his turn to call me, and hear my voice, before he goes, just another day, driving down the Highway of Death.
            And when I hang up the telephone, things feel heavier.

            A machine gun hanging at my husband’s side, that conversation we just had, his words and mine, the ones I said, and the weight of the ones I forgot to say, and the days and nights stretching out in front of both of us, now, that it is done.

            But this is just part of being a military wife.
            How when your husband calls you from war, you are not always ready, even though, even though this could be the last time.


            You must miss him.

            Everyone says that, says you must miss him.

            And I always say I do, how I do, I miss him.
            But the truth is this. Deployment is hard. And deployment can be easy. My husband has been gone for over a year, now. And, yes, I miss him. But some days I don’t. I don’t miss him.

            This is deployment. It is the pain of missing him. And it is the pain of not missing him. Some days I forget about him. Because it has been so long, too long, this separation.


Amalie Flynn is an American writer and the author of WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR and two blogs: WIFE AND WAR and SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH. Flynn’s WIFE AND WAR poetry has appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES AT WAR and in TIME’S BATTLELAND, has appeared in her blog for THE HUFFINGTON POST, and has received mention from THE NEW YORK TIMES MEDIA DECODER. Her SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH blog has received mention from CNN. In addition, her WIFE AND WAR blog has a global readership, with readers from over 90 countries. WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR is her first book.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The American Right and Left on Gun Violence

From Aurora (CO) to Sandy Hook to Charleston to Chicago, violent gun tragedies in America, justifiably, have grabbed headline attention over the last few years. Activists decry the violence, the media spills much ink, and public officials engage in partisan grandstanding, but not a whole lot has been accomplished to solve the ongoing problem of homicide via guns. The violence continues, and thousands of innocent people are killed annually.

What do we make of all this? For sure, there’s a lot of blame to go around. One major failure is the inability of liberals and conservatives in Washington to bridge their differences and put forward effective policies. A major factor here is the ideological differences between both sides. This is what I’d like to focus on in this post. To explore these differences, let’s take a quick look at four salient gun debates that liberals and conservatives are currently engaged in. It’s the sharp disagreements on these debates, in part, effectively hamper much problem solving on guns from Washington.  

#Debate 1

Conservatives are right that more laws aren’t a panacea, as they don’t completely eliminate gun violence. Bureaucrats and their underlings make mistakes, there are administrative screw-ups and legal loopholes abound. For example, people who should be excluded from buying guns via background checks frequently aren’t prevented from doing so. They don’t show up as mental health risks, felons, etc.

But liberals are right, too, in that more laws can help reduce gun violence. Well-written and enforced laws can make it more difficult for miscreants and the troubled to gain access to weapons. It takes the White House, Congress, States, the FBI, police, judges, and so on, to get on the same page to craft and execute and monitor good legislation and to capture and punish those who violate the law. True, but that’s something that’s much easier said than done, however—as conservatives like to point out.

#Debate 2

Conservatives emphasize personal responsibility. Do the crime, do the time. They support strong, strict prison sentences for gun violence, illegal possession of weapons, etc. And they also exhort people who know and are in contact with gun violators and criminals to play their part by contacting police and mental health professionals. It’s their job as moral citizens.

Liberals say that harsh criminal sentences haven’t been an effective deterrent mechanism to prevent gun violence. Liberals would agree that 3rd parties could do a better job in being a part of the solution, but believe that there can be limits to their effectiveness and willingness to do so. Gun criminals often hang around with people who themselves aren’t great citizens, not particularly responsible, and aren’t inclined to act as community watchdogs. Moreover, in some cases, tattling could mean that people implicate themselves in crimes. So the incentive to participate isn’t always there.

#Debate 3

Conservatives argue that gun rights are enshrined in the second amendment. They are a necessary hedge against a future tyrannical American government. Additionally, conservatives argue that the right to self-defense is a constitutionally protected right and has been upheld repeatedly, even expanded, in legal cases. Hence, any attempt to sharply roll back the freedom of Americans to acquire guns violate the Constitution and should be prohibited. Simple as that.

Most liberals are willing to bend on the primacy of the 2nd amendment. They think the problem of gun rights is serious enough to create laws that circumscribe gun rights. Besides, the 2nd amendment was written at a time in which the American republic was nascent and fragile, and when their experience with harsh British rule was fresh on their minds. Times have significantly changed, say liberals.

Moreover, what can citizens really do by hoarding weapons individually or collectively? The asymmetry in power between the government and private citizens has only widened over time, particularly as technology has improved. After all, Washington, backed by the military, has state-of-the-art weapons and defense systems, and, of course, nuclear power. Americans can’t compete with all that.

Debate #4

And then we have the data. They mean different things to different people. Let’s look at just a small sample to illustrate my point.

As liberals point out, the US is an increasingly militarized society—its military oversees the largest defense budget in the world, US police forces are rapidly arming themselves to the teeth with military-style weaponry, and US citizens are awash in guns. American citizens are speculated to hold about 300 million firearms, or about .9 per person. That per capita rate is 50 percent higher than the next most armed country, which is Yemen, a war torn basket-case. The US is much, much more prone to gun violence compared to other modern industrialized democracies. In fact, on gun violence, the US looks more like Mexico than, say, Britain or France. And mass shootings are on the upswing—though still rare.

But conservatives, meantime, are correct in highlighting the fact that gun violence is actually down since the peak violent days of the early 1990s. And while the US has recently averaged about 33,500 gun deaths per year (from 2000-2010), a little under two-thirds of those fatalities have been suicides, not homicides. Moreover, data indicate that defensive uses of weapons occur just as often as offensive uses of weapons, and that such uses of weapons are frequently effective. According to, “studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was 'used' by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”

So as we can see, both sides do make good points. But partisan mudslinging, while appealing for political reasons, misses much of the story of gun violence, as neither side has captured the full truth of what’s going on here. Unfortunately, bridging the ideological differences has been and will continue to be tough.

Entrenched partisan politics—interest group politics, the role of money in elections, and the voice of the hardliners on both the right and left in America—make compromise extremely difficult for those officials in Washington who might be willing to bend on their ideological positions. And even in the face of especially horrific events like the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school murders, which claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 staff members (plus the gunman’s mother and the shooter himself), the right and left in America really couldn’t find much common ground—at least not enough to begin to work toward remedying the problem of gun violence.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A CWCP Conversation: The Greece Crisis

The below conversation between CWCP’s Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman took place over email between July 13 and 15. We hope you enjoy!

Brad Nelson: So now that it appears a Greece deal with the EU and creditors is done, let's take a step back and look at some of the consequences of the events over the last few weeks. Who (or what) comes out the big winner of this mess? Anyone?

Yohanes Sulaiman: There are winners for sure. But big winners? Nope. Germany wins, but got a bad hit to its reputation. Tspiras wins the deal and referendum and applauds from people like Paul Krugman (second thought, that may not be so good), but that’s only after wrecking Greece’s economy and causing regional panic. The EU? Yes it’s still united, but it looks so wobbly. Obama? He is a non-factor here.

Probably former Finance Minister Varoufakis, the game theorist economist, is the biggest winner. His name is praised to high heaven by every leftist and will probably get a plum teaching job! Putin, by doing nothing but just looming around, also managed to make the EU nervous and pulled Greece closer to it. Perhaps Hollande also could make a claim as saving EU, but he was a bit player here.

BN: For me, the winners are: Germany and Merkel, who flexed her diplomatic muscles and got the Greeks to capitulate. We can pretend that France still matters a great deal, but the truth is that Germany runs the show.

The other winners are the EU and the Euro and supporters of European integration, at least for now. The bloc suffered a major crisis, looked shaky, bent, but, in the end, didn't break. However, over the long-term, I'm not sure of the continued viability of the EU. The usual critique--at least one of them--has been that the EU contains one batch of countries that are strong economies and one that's weaker and unsteady. At this point, the EU probably has multiple tiers of countries--relatively strong economies (Germany, Britain, Poland), steady but low growth ones (France), and weak and wobbly economies (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal).

How does the EU, with its sclerotic institutions and internal divisions, deal with this issue over the coming years?

YS: Merkel and Germany sure flexed their muscles, but at what cost? As you said, the viability of the Euro is in serious question. Granted, they could argue that Greece is exception, and I tend to agree and actually sympathize a lot with Berlin. But it cannot be denied that the optics are bad, and this situation created lots of internal resentment; and with EU's dysfunctional way of doing business, Greece and supporters could cause problems, though this might be a long-shot scenario.

But if this happens, then EU either has to transform into more federalized system—doubtful that they have enough support for that--or more dysfunctions and collapse might well result.

BN: I think the EU either has to tighten (a more federalized system, as you suggested) or loosen (give individual members more freedom to cope with their own issues and problems, something that might have been helpful in the Greek case) to remain meaningful. The current status quo isn't working. I suspect bureaucratic inertia, internal divisions, etc., will prevent any kind of structural and institutional change, leaving the EU weak and crisis-prone. 

Let's turn to the other side of events, the so-called losers. Who or what are the losers of the Greek crisis?

YS: Obviously, the EU. We've discussed how this entire fiasco brings the EU to brink, and unlike other crises the EU doesn't emerge stronger here. The idea of unity is questioned.

Yes, Greece is an extreme case in which Athens is really badly governed and the leaders seem not to be willing to play by the rules. Thus, it’s not surprising the idea of a “Grexit” is discussed so openly. How about other EU members? Hungary? Romania? How many have skeletons in their closets waiting to explode? If they do, my guess is the EU won’t do anything until the shit hits the fan.

BN: The losers, to me, are the Greeks, both the Greek government and the people of Greece. The government gambled that it could get a better deal by showing that its people were against austerity and reform. It lost that bet. In fact, I wonder how long Syriza will remain in power. Rumors say that there will probably be a cabinet reshuffle, but that might not be all. One has to think there are limits to how far and long the junior members of the political coalition will go in supporting Tsipras's moves and actions.

Meantime, the Greek people were permitted to voice their political preferences on a deal via referendum, but ultimately those preferences were ignored. Reality trumped poker playing and the government, despite the outcome of the referendum, had to negotiate with the EU and concede to German demands.

How do you think all of this plays out over the long-term for Greece?

YS: Long-term, it depends on whether Greece is willing to reform. I am very pessimistic, however. Expect another encore sooner or later. I mean, reforms imposed from outside rarely work unless there is strong domestic support, which is currently nonexistent in Greece considering the no vote. A majority of Greeks hate austerity and are angry with Germany.  This showed in the referendum results, when a majority of Greeks voted no simply because they consider that a rejection of German policy proposals.  Any reforms that sound like they originated from Berlin will be difficult for Greece to swallow.

BN: I agree with your pessimism; my main concern is the complexity of the issues at stake. Greece needs domestic reform, sure, but there are others things as well. It needs better governance, as you indicated. The Greek people need to be on board with any economic and legislative changes. Greece also needs debt forgiveness, something the IMF has suggested. Are creditors and the EU willing to go along with that? How does Greece stimulate enough economic growth to begin to get out of the hole it’s in? And mind you, all of these actors and actions have work in relative sync with one another. Is that likely? And who provides the leadership on all of this? Merkel? At what point do the Germans get sick of bailing out and providing leadership to the weak and troubled of the EU? And what cues are Spain, Portugal and Italy taking from the Greek drama?