Tag Archives: Syria

Ayman al Zawahiri’s New Video Messages

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri released a new two-part installment of his video series focusing on Egypt, which was posted on Oct. 24. It seems there was a delay in releasing this installment, as Zawahiri apologizes for the delay of the release, and blames “the vicious war” that has been waged by “the Crusader alliance in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the mujahedin.” Thus far these messages have not generated much reaction on jihadi web forums.

In this entry, I analyze the first part of Zawahiri’s new installment, which seems to have been recorded in the run-up to Egypt’s presidential election. It features not only Zawahiri’s speech, but is also spliced with footage of other figures. The italicized texts below are either excerpts from Zawahiri’s characteristically long speech (based on a translation I obtained) or else descriptions of footage of other figures. If Zawahiri is speaking, rather than the italicized portion being a description of other footage, I enclose his words in quotations. My commentary follows each excerpt.

The video features footage of the son of the recently deceased extremist scholar Shaykh Rifa’i Surur speaking on his father’s position regarding the Egyptian elections. He states that Surur “saw the invalidity of democracy,” as democracy ceded the right of legislation to humanity rather than God. Any results from such a foundation would inevitably “not be respected and not be the result of good.”

Within the first year of salafi jihadi reactions to the events of the “Arab Spring,” there still wasn’t a clearly delineated position throughout the movement’s major organs on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of elections. The position being expressed by Rifa’i Surur’s son, and attributed to Surur, is representative of traditional salafi jihadi position. However, as Will McCants has noted, Islamist parliamentarians pose challenges to both the salafi jihadi outlook, and also al Qaeda’s outlook specifically.

“I urge Muslims everywhere, and especially those in countries neighboring Syria, to rise up to support their Syrian brethren in every way possible. I urge them not to deprive these Syrians of anything which they might have to offer, should it help rid the Syrians of this criminal and cancerous regime which has safeguarded Israel’s borders for nearly forty years.”

Syria is a frequent theme in jihadi propaganda. In this release, Zawahiri is particularly interested in the impact of regime change on Israel, arguing that “Cairo and Damascus are the two gates to Jerusalem.” I recently conducted a review of salafi jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring in the first year of the revolutionary events that will be published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism in November, and not surprisingly found that harm to Israel was a recurring theme. Due to the longstanding Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, jihadis perceived the fall of Hosni Mubarak as a significant strategic setback for the Jewish state (as Zawahiri noted, Cairo is seen as one of the gates to Jerusalem).

Malcolm X makes three appearances in the video, and is identified on-screen as “The martyred preacher, as we consider him, Haj Malik al Shabazz (Malcolm X), may God have mercy on him.”

Malcolm X has previously been featured in Zawahiri’s releases. This indicates that al Qaeda likely thinks that African-Americans are a promising demographic for recruitment. One interesting question is whether the idea to use Malcolm X has been promoted by a particular Zawahiri media adviser (my guess), or whether it was done on Zawahiri’s own initiative. If it was pushed by a media adviser, that decision could well reflect the particular interests and outlook of the adviser.

“I am seizing this opportunity to repeat and affirm our support for our people in Syria and their sons, the lions of the Levant and Islam, who have thrown themselves into Islam’s battle against the forces of secularism, corruption, and injustice in the Levant of the frontline and jihad.”

Zawahiri and other salafi jihadi ideologues have a particular way of framing revolutionary events in the region. When explaining what the people are rebelling against, secularism is always at the top of their list. Indeed, in the fourth episode of his ongoing series on Egypt (posted on March 4, 2011), Zawahiri explained at length that the Egyptian people have “repeatedly demanded that the Islamic sharia be the source for laws and legislation.” Secularism, Zawahiri argues, was forcibly imposed: the Egyptian people themselves never chose it. (It goes without saying that if you were to compile the major grievances that Syrians had against the Assad regime, secularism would not be their top problem.)

“I think that our father and shaykh, Shaykh Hafiz Salamah, learned from me of the maneuvers that were being undertaken so that sharia would not be established in Egypt. Among the examples of these maneuvers were the games played by the Military Council in the presidential elections. Guided by the Military Council, the committee overseeing the presidential elections brought about the disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il, despite a ruling from the judges in his favor, while they affirmed Ahmad Shafiq, despite a judicial ruling against him. The disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il is a lesson for every Muslim who thinks that sharia can be established in Egypt by way of secular constitutions that give sovereignty to the people, whereas in Islam, this right goes to God alone.”

A significant portion of Zawahiri’s speech focuses on how Egypt’s implementation of sharia will be watered down. He speaks, for example, of the inadequacy of constitutional provisions stating that sharia is the principle source of legislation, saying that “resorting to texts like these, so full of holes, will not achieve sharia rule.” Among other things, the inadequacy of Egypt’s sharia provides an ongoing justification for opposing the Egyptian state.

The video also features footage of several Egyptian jihadi clerics whom Zawahiri endorses. These include Ahmad Ashush and Abd al Hakim Hassan (a.k.a. Mujran Salim).

Ashush is one of several salafi jihadi figures who have given interviews to Arab television stations over the past few months; Muhammad al Zawahiri is another. When he appeared on Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr (Al Jazeera Egypt Live) in July, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that it was “the first time I have been allowed — not me as a person but we as a trend — to speak about ourselves.” He continued, “We were the only trend prevented from airing our views. The media always paint us in a false and brutal light, so that America’s aims of tarnishing the image of Islamic jihadist trend are achieved.” Though Muhammad al Zawahiri’s appearance did not go particularly well, it will be worth watching the long-term impact of having salafi jihadi figures represent their movement on television, if it continues.

In the footage of Ahmad Ashush featured on Ayman al Zawahiri’s new release, he also adopts an anti-election posture, warning his audience against being drawn into “the political process,” such that the elections would become “the alternative to the revolution.”

“The battle in Egypt is crystal clear… It is a battle between the secular minority that is allied with the Church and is supported by the junta — the product of Mubarak and the Americans, and supported by America and the West — and between the Muslim ummah in Egypt that is striving to implement sharia, liberate itself from subordination, liberate Palestine and the lands of Muslims, achieve social justice, and fight financial and moral corruption. This is the reality of the battle, and the enemies of Islam possess the military might, the security apparatuses, the corrupt judicial system, and the money that corrupts politics and media.”

This is also a common jihadi framing: that the overarching conflict is between Islam and secularism. Note that if the post-Mubarak Egyptian government is anything less than perfect — and surely it will be — Zawahiri’s framing blames secularism for corruption, social injustice, etc. In this regard, Zawahiri’s speech has much in common with other utopian ideologies that hold the change they advocate will sweep away all that is wrong with the world.

There is footage of Ahmad Ashush sitting with other men in Tahrir Square. He criticizes the constitutional court that issued rulings legalizing “fornication, alcohol, sodomy, and gambling,” and calls for changing the “security, judicial, and cultural institutions” built on “secularism.”

This footage is used by Zawahiri to point to the constitutional court as “an idol that is imposed on us.” Its rulings on these social issues, to Zawahiri, demonstrate how it is subordinating Islamic law and allowing immorality. I am currently working on a larger project about how academics understand religion in the context of the salafi jihadi movement. A number of prominent commentators have held that religious ideas are essentially irrelevant to this movement, but instead it is motivated almost exclusively by politics — a position that was always difficult to sustain, but is becoming increasingly so. In that regard, Ashush’s listing of these constitutional court rulings, and the fact that they made their way into an al Qaeda video, is a data point worth noting. To Zawahiri, the constitutional court “is a secular court whose religion is secularism,” and its only legitimacy “is the legitimacy of wolves and thieves.”

“The battle has not ended, but it has started, and it is incumbent upon Shaykh Hazim, his supporters, and all the sincere people in Egypt to wage a popular campaign of incitement and dawa to complete the revolution that has been aborted, and whose gains have been compromised. They must do that to realize the aspirations of sharia implementation, as well as honor, justice, freedom, and dignity for the mujahid, Muslim, and steadfast people of Egypt, and to compel the corrupt forces in Egypt to submit to the demands of the people through the popular, revolutionary work of incitement and dawa.”

Note that Ayman al Zawahiri’s immediate call is not to violence, but rather to “incitement and dawa.” As noted earlier, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that his television appearance represented the first time that the jihadi current was allowed to speak for itself. Beyond that, some of the changes in the new Middle East — regardless of whether this process of opening up is on the whole good for these societies — provide jihadis with the opportunity to undertake more intense dawa efforts than they have before, in an effort to draw others toward their understanding of Islam. This advocacy of undertaking dawa in the wake of the revolutions is widespread among jihadi observers, including Hamzah bin Muhammad al Bassam, Abu al Mundhir al Shinqiti, and Ayman al Zawahiri himself. One should not conclude, however, that intensified dawa efforts mean a repudiation of violence. Thinkers such as Ayman al Zawahiri see the salafi jihadi response to the “Arab Spring” as moving in stages, and a current dawa strategy will in Zawahiri’s view give way to a stage of jihad. Bassam has argued that dawa efforts need to eventually produce “real and open existence for jihad,” which will in his view produce a true implementation of sharia. Without violence, Bassam asserted, the efforts of Islamists will have no results “other than gathering and dispersion,” because a number of different “intellectual trends” will be competing for power.

“The second condolence goes to the enduring and steadfast shaykh of the mujahedin, the revered Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God release him from captivity, and his son Muhammad, better known as the lion, and to his honorable family, for the martyrdom of their son Ahmad Bin-Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God have mercy on him, in an American bombardment in the pure land of Khorasan [Afghanistan]. May God grant expansive mercy upon him and accept him and the jihad he waged and the emigration he undertook. May He provide for this noble family that has remained steadfast and patient for God despite afflictions. Let me emphasize to our noble shaykh, Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, to his sons, and all the other Muslim prisoners and their families, that we will spare no effort, with the aid and support of God, until we liberate every prisoner in infidel hands, or we will die trying.”

Zawahiri is of course referring to the “Blind Sheikh,” imprisoned in the U.S., whom Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi has also said he would work to free.

There is an excerpt of a video interview with Julian Assange with Arabic subtitles, in which he explains his views on the “military-intelligence complex,” Guantanamo, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia. Al-Zawahiri continues: “This is what America fears about al Qaeda. It knows that this message and that call portends its demise and destruction, God permitting. Therefore, America and its allies and rabble seek to eliminate the leadership of al Qaeda both morally and materially. But by the grace and power of God, this shall never, ever happen.”

Individuals have little control over whether organizations like al Qaeda use their words and ideas for propaganda purposes, but it is interesting to see Assange used as a propaganda piece in this video.

There is footage of Malcolm X predicting worldwide revolution against “the international power structure” set against signs from the Egyptian revolution. Zawahiri continues: “What is encouraging is that these regimes began to collapse and crumble before the American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, whereas the Soviet-supported regimes of the Warsaw Pact did not begin to collapse until after the Russians left Afghanistan. This indicates that America is in a state of profound weakness that may surpass that of the Soviet Union in its final days, and that the coming change will be even greater, God permitting.”

Two aspects of this are worth noting. One is that a continual feature of bin Laden’s rhetoric was the idea that he and other Arab mujahedin had caused the Soviet Union to collapse — and that by bleeding the U.S. economically, al Qaeda was doing the same to America. (Bin Laden’s October 2004 speech is most prominent in this regard, but he made similar claims in other addresses, such as a September 2007 video.) Zawahiri is hitting the same theme in this speech. Among other things, this framing places al Qaeda as a key cause behind the Arab Spring through the damage it did to America, even though it played little role in the actual revolutions. The second thing worth noting is the way the Malcolm X clip is being used. Malcolm X wasn’t predicting an Islamist or jihadi revolution, but rather a more widespread revolution against the “power structure.” Throughout this tape, Zawahiri positions al Qaeda as a kind of ecumenical organization that can fulfill the revolutionary aspirations of many disparate groups.

“Obama should admit that he was defeated in Iraq and that he withdrew from it, and that he is being defeated in Afghanistan and has decided to withdraw from it. He was defeated in Tunisia when he lost Zine El Abidine, and defeated in Egypt when he lost Mubarak. He was defeated in Libya when he lost Al-Qadhafi, who handed him his nuclear program and cooperated with him in the torture of the detainees in the war on Islam under the pretext of terrorism.”

The claim that Obama was defeated in Libya when he lost Qaddafi is a bit difficult to sustain, isn’t it?

There is a still image of Malcolm X with Arabic subtitles of his statement: “The slave master took Tom and dressed him well, and fed him well, and even gave him a little education. A little education. Gave him a long coat, and a top hat, and made all the other slaves look up to him. They used Tom to control them. The same strategy that was used in those days is used today by the same white man. He take a negro or so-called negro and make him prominent. Build him up, publicize him, make him a celebrity, and then he becomes a spokesman for negro, and a negro leader.” Zawahiri continues by saying that Obama “was brought in as the progeny of a Muslim father and from African origins to continue the system of aggression against Muslims and the vulnerable others, which exploits and robs them.”

This is not the first time that Zawahiri has referred to Obama as a “house negro” or an “Uncle Tom.” He has in the past also relied on Malcolm X to make this claim. Zawahiri’s new tape similarly uses footage of Cynthia McKinney as a propaganda piece for this racialized claim, in which McKinney says that “these wars are being carried out in black face.”

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The Quandaries of Anti-Interventionist Advocacy

For those seeking to limit the role of military interventions in American foreign policy, making arguments convincing for a policymaking audience has been a persistent difficulty. Despite the existence of a significant popular aversion to intervention, mobilizing members of the policymaking elite behind anti-interventionist policy choices has always been difficult, and anti-interventionist stances, at least in a crisis, are often only accepted with reluctance, particularly as a crisis drags on. My co-blogger Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recently wrote an excellent piece assessing some points important to those of the anti-interventonist persuasion.

Firstly, it is absolutely correct to note that the alternative options by anti-interventionists are often not very appealing. In many cases, the alternatives of using diplomacy, sanctions, or other measures to try to seek a non-military resolution or at least abatement of conflict are easy targets for criticism. Interventionists usually portray military action as a clear and straightforward resolution to the problem, with the best possible end-state emerging from the fog of war. On the other hand, policymakers cannot promise anywhere near as happy an ending to non-military actions, if only because the ugly reality of what limited American leverage can accomplish is visible every day, while the likely much worse result of a poor intervention strategy remains hypothetical.

Secondly, Gartenstein-Ross notes that anti-interventionists are often reluctant to explicitly outline what they expect to happen in the absence of military intervention. The difficulty of doing so is that it compounds on the problem outlined in the aforementioned point – it offers a vision that is not very competitive with the grand, if unjustifiably optimistic, notion of the end-state an intervention produces.

That said, there are voices opposed to military intervention in Syria which have identified alternative courses. Andrew Exum and the good folks at CNAS, for example, have argued for a genuine containment effort based on security cooperation with neighboring states to prevent actual spillover of the conflict. Other alternative suggested, such as political pressure on Russia to help negotiate a halt to violence, or a political transition that stops short of violent regime change, have run aground on the fact that many other regional and global powers have interests opposed to preferred U.S. outcomes in Syria, which can only be satiated through concessions that may often seem extremely unpalatable.

For example, at a time when the current administration is under considerable pressure from policymaking elites for making perceived concessions to Russia on issues such as missile defense and NATO expansion, the prospect of making the sort of actual concessions necessary to get a Russian concession on Syria might be similarly abhorrent to those inclined to intervention, particularly when this approach acknowledges the limited fruits such a concession would bear.

Similarly, a political transition is almost certainly likely to leave major swathes of the Syrian regime, including the security services which have so viciously butchered the opposition, in power. Even in cases where the military was extremely dependent on powers supporting regime change, such as in Egypt, it has been extremely difficult for Western states to dislodge the military from power. In Syria, where the U.S. has virtually no leverage over the security services, it is highly unlikely that military action can deliver the tabula rasa for democratic governance that interventionists often desire.

The most likely outcome in Syria, all other things remaining the same, is the reduction of the rebellion to an insurgency incapable of holding territory, if not their outright defeat, and the kind of terrible, violent reprisals by the government which follow in the wake of such failed insurgencies. However, there is the distinct possibility that regional actors will continue to funnel enough support to keep the rebellion alive, though without a major ground intervention the best they can likely hope for is a long-term attrition of the Assad regime and whatever states commit resources to backing it.

That means thousands, perhaps tens of thousands more dead. It means a continuing litany of horrors pouring out of Syria. It also means shame and embarrassment for whatever policymakers are foolish enough to promise a happy outcome to efforts to mitigate the Syrian conflict. But it is vital to remember that the strategic merit of intervention plans rise and fall not with the degree or pace of killing, but with the military feasibility of the opposition defeating the Syrian government. While the death toll of Syria has only risen, the military feasibility of the FSA defeating the Syrian government or holding territory against concerted offensives or sieges has not improved

In reality, there is no clear correlation between the degree of an atrocity and its impact on American vital interests. This is uncomfortable, but necessary, to fully state the anti-interventionist case. The Cambodian genocide and Rwandan genocide were two of some of the greatest atrocities in history, yet neither significantly reduced U.S. security or freedom of action despite their terrible consequences within their own regions. On the other hand, death tolls from tensions in the Gulf, or even the outright Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, were very low, but obviously came with much more important consequences for American interests. Even in Syria, America has virtually no vital interests in Syria itself, which means a strategy that simply insulates areas in which the U.S. does have serious concerns from the consequences of Syrian violence is likely a far better use of U.S. resources.

However, it is vital to note that in similar strategies of limited-liability civil war intervention, the odds are no better for prevention of a longer war and thus more casualties, more suffering, and more instability. Waging a war of attrition – and any strategy that relies on the guerrilla FSA defeating the conventionally superior Syrian military, even with the added factor of air support, is one of attrition – will mean tens of thousands, at least, of additional dead, and, barring the deployment of an unthinkable number of ground troops, the same sort of overflow of instability, influx of unsavory non-state actors, and other consequences bandied about as proof of the need for an intervention. The notion that intervention is inherently stabilizing not just false, but in fact antithetical to the very strategic logic of a limited intervention itself.

Even if intervention was quick and successful, overthrowing a brutal regime does not mean an end to brutality itself. There is no way to prevent the outbreak of insurgencies by groups which would oppose the new Syrian government, or to ensure that Syria retains a strong central government at all. Nor are there any mechanisms that would prevent foreign powers hostile to a new Syrian government from covertly backing opponents or exploiting new fissures in the political landscape. The anti-interventionist option of “do nothing” are ugly, but not much uglier than the “do something” options if one considers the consequences of a militarily-incoherent intervention, and perhaps even less ugly if one considers the potential consequences of an intervention – greater sectarianism, greater opportunities for jihadist groups to infiltrate into Syria, and counteractions by Syria’s foreign supporters against an intervening force.

Anti-interventionists must also note the difference between counteracting the objectives of a country with which the United States is hostile and advancing U.S. interests and goals. Simply because Iran supports the Assad regime does not mean that trying to overthrow the Assad regime makes for good Iran policy, nor does it mean a good Iran policy will necessarily beget a good Syria policy. Spending a Syria intervention’s likely billions on supporting the costly U.S. presence in the Gulf (where, unlike the Levant, Iranian action has a direct impact on vital U.S. interests), taking countermeasures against Iranian proxies in other geographic theaters, or by directly supporting U.S. allies. Similarly, a policy aimed at reducing Iranian freedom of action  by waging a proxy war against it in Syria would likely, as most proxy wars do, increase the devastating costs for the civilian population and delay or deny alternative possibilities for an abatement or settlement of the killing.

Now we arrive at the macro-scale foreign policy questions that Gartenstein-Ross mentions. I am currently on the fence about the value of a term like “grand strategy,” as extremely intelligent commentators such as Adam Elkus have masterfully dissected it in their prior work. But even though I might be wary to embrace a term such as “grand strategy” to describe it, I still agree that there are a number of interrelated economic, political, and geopolitical challenges which merit the prioritization of certain policy issues as prerequisites for guiding U.S. responses to crises such as Syria. These are interrelated, though, with certain conceptualizations of the international system which make it difficult even for policymakers that recognize the significant costs of intervention to commit to anti-interventionism with more confidence.

The mere acknowledgement that certain areas of the world, or certain types of foreign political behavior, do not matter very much for U.S. interests is fundamentally at odds with many basic assumptions and rhetorical frames for U.S. foreign and defense policy. Aaron Ellis, writing about Britain, has described the “internationalization of the national interest” as a barrier to clear thinking about where and why to intervene that Gartenstein-Ross desires. In an interconnected or globalized world, technology, communications and complexity makes a crisis anywhere a seemingly imperative interest. In such a context, it becomes increasingly hard to distinguish chaos or strife anywhere from a systemic threat to everywhere. As Halford Mackinder, a British geographer, put it in 1904:

Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence.

Anti-interventionists have to explain that American national policy, though it may look at the world holistically, must distinguish between regional crises and global interests, particularly when deciding to undertake something as inherently costly and dangerous as military action. It is difficult to evangelize the anti-interventionist alternative when the importance of a crisis is continually inflated. Without recognition that Syrian violence – however horrific it gets – so long as its spillover is mitigated, is not in and of itself a threat to vital American interests, interventionists can easily conflate a preference (that Syria not brutally repress its citizens) with an actual interest. The current administration, by all too often invoking tropes of the new, globalized and internationalized national interest, has in many ways painted itself into a difficult corner by ceding the very debate to the interventionist camp about when and where U.S. major interests are at stake.

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On American Military Intervention in Syria

Dan Trombly, who is always worth reading, had an interesting post Wednesday at Slouching Towards Columbia on U.S. intervention in Syria. Those who have read Trombly will not be surprised by his position on intervention–he’s against it–and, as I noted on Twitter, I expect that many readers won’t agree with all of his points. Such is the price of consistently writing long and broad posts: it gives readers far more to disagree with. Trombly’s post triggered some thoughts of my own on a possible U.S. military intervention in Syria, which I outline here.

First, Trombly is certainly correct that the massacre in Houla and other regime atrocities that have been unearthed do not change American strategic interests with respect to Syria. Horrible as they are, they don’t tell us anything new about the nature of this odious regime. If it was a bad idea to intervene prior to the latest revelations–and in this case, the mode of intervention that Trombly criticizes is Danielle Pletka’s prescription of arming the rebels, giving them air cover, and supporting safe corridors–then it remains a bad idea even despite the recent grotesque news. We should not base our foreign policy around heated reactions to tragedy: doing so is a recipe for error.

Second, I think it’s worth visiting reasons that it seems anti-interventionists often end up losing foreign policy debates–and on Syria, I put myself in the anti-interventionist camp. One reason is that anti-interventionists often fail to put forward competitive options, instead stopping with the case against military action. I agree with that case (at least in its conclusion, though I may differ on some of the details), but analysis should not end there. After all, the Syrian regime is perpetrating atrocity after atrocity on its own citizens, and we all have a natural human impulse, an admirable one, to want to stop massacres if we can. So can those who don’t favor military intervention propose, maybe even come to some rough agreement on, median solutions that can deal with humanitarian concerns without resorting to an air war? When the choice presented in these debates seems to be between military intervention and doing nothing, the choice of doing nothing often loses. While I don’t disagree with Trombly’s assertion that “the average American voter” probably “likes killing terrorists but is sick of war,” the relevant audience here is really foreign policy elites within the administration. They are the ones who must be persuaded not to go to war. Given that Mitt Romney is trying to out-hawk Obama on Syria, a new war in that theater may not be politically costly for Obama.

Another thing that anti-interventionists could do a better job of is specifying what the world looks like without the U.S. militarily involved. I am by no means trying to pick on Trombly–my friend, co-author, and someone whom I deeply admire–on this point. But his post is illustrative of something I see as problematic in the anti-interventionist discourse. He writes, for example: “The only way the Assad regime is going to fall in Syria, short of an Iraq-style invasion, is by prolonging the war and defeating the Assad regime through attrition. In other words, the interventionists’ preferred solution of creating ‘safe corridors,’ arming rebel groups, and conducting airstrikes will only drag out the war without assuring victory.” What does drag out the war mean in this context? Is it because Assad is poised to crush the rebels in the status quo? If so, Trombly–or whomever is making a similar case–should come right out and say that. I think realistic assessments of what a world without military intervention would look like would significantly benefit the debate. Perhaps this world is very ugly; that doesn’t mean the case against intervention fails. As I wrote in Bin Laden’s Legacy:

The sad reality of the twenty-first century is that we cannot respond with full vigor to every perceived threat, or we won’t have the resources left over to address those that are most pressing. The sad reality is that lives will be lost in other parts of the world, like Libya, and we won’t be able to do anything about it. This should give us no comfort, but we must be realistic. When we are facing a crushing national debt, the interest payments for which are projected to eclipse our current defense budget by 2019, we cannot afford to overreact to every terrorist threat and to intervene in every conflict.

A third and final point is that Syria illustrates why I disagree with Jason Fritz’s rather thought-provoking argument that a coherent U.S. grand strategy is in effect useless. Rather than being driven by my perception of a “grand enemy,” my own sense of grand strategy is driven by what I see as the overarching–and, in many ways, interrelated–challenges that we confront as a nation, challenges that I outlined at some length on G&L. The national debt and violent non-state actors are among the primary concerns I listed. It seems to me, based on this view of the world, that a military intervention in Syria is not cost justified–particularly because, as Trombly points out, it’s possible that jihadi elements among the rebels may be strengthened rather than marginalized by U.S. involvement. It is hard to justify a new military campaign when our strategic resources would be better devoted to areas where we have very concrete strategic interests–places like Somalia, Yemen, North Africa, Mali, Afghanistan–and we’d also likely be better off if these resources were simply conserved.

My specific thinking on Syria is, of course, a bit more complex than this. But my point is that a sense of grand strategy shaped around the challenges the U.S. confronts can be useful in approaching foreign policy problems–and, in my view, can accomplish precisely what Fritz is concerned with, avoiding foreign policy mistakes.

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Syria, bearing witness, and doing something

Just before bed last night, I read Marie Colvin’s report from Baba Amr for the Sunday Times from last weekend. It was a grim read. She painted a vivid picture of the fear and want and constant danger of the place. The first thing I saw on Twitter when I got up this morning was the news that she had been killed, as had French photojournalist Remi Ochlik and Syrian journalist Rami al-Sayed. These three are just the most recent on a list of witnesses killed by Asad. He has slaughtered thousands, and among them have been a number who were working and risking their lives to bear witness and to bring stories and images and simple awareness of his atrocities to the world’s attention day after day. Reports that the target hit in this particular attack was no coincidence serves as a reminder of the importance of this witness. If videos, photos, stories were not making their way out of Syria each day – as hard as this might be to imagine – Asad’s attacks might very well be much worse.

I haven’t commented on this all day. I was shaken – by these deaths, by Anthony Shadid’s last week, by Colvin’s last few reports and so many more we have seen from Syria. I know the desperate, helpless feeling of ‘We have to DO SOMETHING.’ I’ve been thinking about it all day. Nearly all discussion on what that something might be comes down to military intervention, or arming the rebels. I don’t think military intervention is in our best interests, and quite honestly, I don’t think it’s in the interests of most Syrians either (ask the people of Iraq or Afghanistan about their hundreds of thousands of dead).

The horror engendered by the images that come out of places like Homs and the terrible impatience that tells us something must be done now can make for a deadly combination, enticing people with the idea of just sending in troops or bombing Asad back to the Stone Age, but we have to remember that this is not a video game. I know that sounds flip, but I have to think some people must genuinely forget that, the glibness with which military intervention is so frequently suggested, lest I come to believe that they are ghouls or at least truly indifferent to death and suffering. War is never cut-and-dry. There are complications, unintended consequences, unanticipated casualties, enemy responses. Military strikes – even those undertaken with the best of intentions – kill people, and not always the ‘right’ people. Add to that the risk to American troops and stakes that could include the future stability of the entire region, and there is a high probability of any military intervention doing significantly more harm than good for all involved.

All that being said, I have been unable to escape the feeling that while I would take military action off the table, doing nothing is not an option either. It can seem painfully slow, to follow a diplomatic path toward helping Syria, and it is downright agonizing to watch the suffering of its people, but in the long run, a non-military approach has a better chance to benefit both U.S. interests and the future of Syria. One of the strongest proponents of the diplomatic route in the public discussion of options for Syria has been Marc Lynch. I have always found Mr. Lynch to be intelligent, principled, and possessed of deep knowledge of the region, so I have been eagerly anticipating his report for CNAS on Syria.

The report was released today, and while I have my doubts about our ability to execute some of his recommendations – How will we “reassure the Syrian public that abandoning its support for the Asad regime will not unleash the sort of sectarian war that killed hundreds of thousands of people in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq”? How are we to guarantee reconciliation and not retaliation for political defectors? – I do think that Mr. Lynch’s plan represents the best option I have seen so far. He succinctly outlines all of the proposals along the military intervention/arm the rebels spectrum, and effectively dismisses each one, before outlining his own plan of “forceful diplomacy.” As is so often the case with good diplomacy, what he is proposing is complex and would require patience. It lacks the flash and immediacy of the military options, but this plan – or something like it – holds out the best hope for a solution that will not just oust Asad, but ensure a smoother, more inclusive, and more effective transition once he’s gone.

I encourage everyone to read it, and I’d love to hear other ideas, particularly from those who have a stronger background in diplomacy than I do. In the meantime, as one last note, I want to say: rest in peace, Ferzat Jarban, Basil al-Sayed, Shukri Abu al-Burghul, Gilles Jacquier, Mazhar Tayyara, Anthony Shadid, Rami al-Sayed, Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik. I hope that the rest of us can find a way to make sure that your acts of witness inspire change, and that the sacrifice you made for them is honored.

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