Thursday, December 31, 2015


Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. Their criticism has focused on what they see as the administration’s fixation on Assad’s primary ally, Vladimir Putin. In their view, Obama is captive to Cold War thinking about Russia and China, and hasn’t adjusted his stance on Syria to the fact both countries share Washington’s anxiety about the spread of terrorism in and beyond Syria; like Washington, they believe that Islamic State must be stopped. The military’s resistance dates back to the summer of 2013, when a highly classified assessment, put together by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then led by General Martin Dempsey, forecast that the fall of the Assad regime would lead to chaos and, potentially, to Syria’s takeover by jihadi extremists, much as was then happening in Libya. A former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs told me that the document was an ‘all-source’ appraisal, drawing on information from signals, satellite and human intelligence, and took a dim view of the Obama administration’s insistence on continuing to finance and arm the so-called moderate rebel groups. By then, the CIA had been conspiring for more than a year with allies in the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to ship guns and goods – to be used for the overthrow of Assad – from Libya, via Turkey, into Syria. The new intelligence estimate singled out Turkey as a major impediment to Obama’s Syria policy. The document showed, the adviser said, ‘that what was started as a covert US programme to arm and support the moderate rebels fighting Assad had been co-opted by Turkey, and had morphed into an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State. The so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey.’ The assessment was bleak: there was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the US was arming extremists. Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the DIA between 2012 and 2014, confirmed that his agency had sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the civilian leadership about the dire consequences of toppling Assad. The jihadists, he said, were in control of the opposition. Turkey wasn’t doing enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border. ‘If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic,’ Flynn told me. ‘We understood Isis’s long-term strategy and its campaign plans, and we also discussed the fact that Turkey was looking the other way when it came to the growth of the Islamic State inside Syria.’ The DIA’s reporting, he said, ‘got enormous pushback’ from the Obama administration. ‘I felt that they did not want to hear the truth.’ ‘Our policy of arming the opposition to Assad was unsuccessful and actually having a negative impact,’ the former JCS adviser said. ‘The Joint Chiefs believed that Assad should not be replaced by fundamentalists. The administration’s policy was contradictory. They wanted Assad to go but the opposition was dominated by extremists. So who was going to replace him? To say Assad’s got to go is fine, but if you follow that through – therefore anyone is better. It’s the “anybody else is better” issue that the JCS had with Obama’s policy.’ The Joint Chiefs felt that a direct challenge to Obama’s policy would have ‘had a zero chance of success’. So in the autumn of 2013 they decided to take steps against the extremists without going through political channels, by providing US intelligence to the militaries of other nations, on the understanding that it would be passed on to the Syrian army and used against the common enemy, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.
Seymour Hirsch, "Military to Military". The London Review of Books. 7 January 2016, in
The importance of Seymour Hirsch's piece in the current issue of the London Review of Books, is that it clearly shows that an important element of the American National Security apparatus does not adhere to the belief of those in the State Department and the White House that the ouster of the Assad regime is the sine qua non dealing with the problem of ISIS. While it is self-evident (to me at the very least) that the ouster in the current circumstance of the Assad regime would have the end-result of a complete collapse (such as it is) of the Syrian State apparatus with the concomitant replay of the Afghanistan Civil War of 1992-1995, which resulted in the rise to power of the Taliban, this prognosis is not adhered to by those who have been running American Syrian policy since 2011. The fact that (as per Hirsch's piece) the American military hierarchy has been willing to share intelligence information with both the Assad regime and with Russian military in an effort to stop / retard ISIS speaks volumes about their priorities as opposed to that of the White House & State Department. The question that I have is: a) is what Hirsch reporting is in fact correct? b) if so, will the disclosure of intelligence sharing between the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and their Syrian and Russian counter-parts result in any disciplining measures? Or in the termination of this end-run of established policy on the Syrian conflict? We shall see...

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


"Iraqi forces appeared poised to regain control of the city of Ramadi on Monday in what would mark their most significant victory against Isis fighters to date, although analysts warned that myriad difficulties still lay ahead. State television broadcast footage of government soldiers raising the Iraq flag over Ramadi’s main government complex while a Sunni politician said that Isis fighters were fleeing towards rural areas. But questions still remained over just how much of the city, which Iraqi forces were forced to abandon in May, was under government control and just what was left of the city for civilians to return to. “Militarily speaking, we can say that the city of Ramadi has fallen back into the hands of the Iraqi forces,” Jaber Jaberi, a Sunni politician, told the Financial Times. “It is considered a fallen city because there is no resistance from Isis".”
Shawn Donnan, Sam Fleming and Noam Raydan, "Isis fighters flee Ramadi as Iraqi forces claim victory". The Financial Times. 28 December 2015, in
"Great praise the Duke of Marlbro' won, And our good Prince Eugene." "Why, 'twas a very wicked thing!" Said little Wilhelmine. "Nay ... nay ... my little girl," quoth he, "It was a famous victory." "And everybody praised the Duke Who this great fight did win." "But what good came of it at last?" Quoth little Peterkin. "Why, that I cannot tell," said he, "But 'twas a famous victory."
Robert Southey. "The Battle of Blenheim". First published 1796.
One does not have to be opposed to the American-lead effort to defeat the many-headed hydra that is ISIS to be quite cynical about the 'victory' that the Iraqi army has proclaimed in recapturing the nearly destroyed city of Ramadi from ISIS. Merely to observe that as Anthony Cordesman among other have noted: “Getting a town back that you should not have lost in the first place is not going to matter very much if it has been completely destroyed 1.” Especially considering the time and the effort that went into what should have been a fairly easy military operation considering the fact that the American-lead coalition has complete command of the air and that ISIS has almost nothing by way of anti-aircraft weapons or much by way of intelligence gathering, et cetera. The only thing that one can conclude is that given how slowly this 'victory' took, it will take perhaps another year for the Iraqi Army to seriously endeavor to recapture Mosul and the one-third to one-quarter of Iraq that ISIS nominally still controls. Raising in turn the question: can the Western powers wait that long? And raising in turn the further question: if the Iraqi Army is such a laggard and so lethargic in its military effort against ISIS, who and what will be able to even contemplate a similar effort against ISIS in Syria? And when exactly? These are the questions that the 'victory' of Ramadi raises for me at least.
1. Cordesman quoted in Donnan, Fleming & Raydan, op. cit.

Saturday, December 12, 2015


"It says something of how badly Donald Trump, the US Republican hopeful, has erred that journalists initially treated his statement calling for Muslims to be barred from entering the US as a hoax. Even he would not go that far, they said. Alas, they were wrong. He has, and he will continue to do so. It has long been clear there are no limits to Mr Trump’s invective. The real-estate mogul has dealt in misogyny, racism, belittling of disabled people and schoolyard bully tactics. There is no reason to suppose his latest — and most egregious — outrage will be his worst. Although Mr Trump is exploiting the deep disaffection that many Americans feel towards Washington, his demagoguery has reached the point where it is safe to say that his politics are un-American. In the first instance, it will be up to his rivals within the Republican party to repudiate the warped message he is peddling. Their party’s future, and the character of US democracy, may depend on it. On many levels, Mr Trump’s proposal sets off alarm bells. On moral grounds, closing US borders to an entire category of people is repugnant. The implication that every Muslim is a potential Isis recruit is offensive and unconstitutional: America enshrines an individual’s primacy before the law and admits to no religious bar. During much of the 20th century, there was a de facto ban on Catholic immigration and in the late 19th century a bar on Chinese. Both episodes were aberrations from US moral and legal values. Mr Trump has already crossed the line by proposing a database for Muslim Americans. He declares they should also be required to carry separate identity cards. Each measure would be struck down by the courts. It is vital his latest broadside be defeated in the court of public opinion".
Leader, "Donald Trump’s offensive assault on American values". The Financial Times. 8 December 2015, in
“I am not often in agreement with Mr Zilliacus, and it is therefore all the more of a pleasure to record my agreement with him on this occasion. Granting him his own special terminology, I think his accusation is fully justified. One must remember, of course, that in the mouths of Mr Zilliacus and his associates, words like democracy, Fascism or totalitarianism do not bear quite their normal meanings. In general they tend to turn into their opposites, Fascism meaning unfaked elections, democracy meaning minority rule, and so on. But this does not alter the fact that he is dwelling on real issues—issues on which Tribune has consistently, over a period of years, failed to make its position clear. He knows that the only big political questions in the world today are: for Russia—against Russia, for America— against America, for democracy—against democracy. And though he may describe his own activities in different words from what most of us would use, at least we can see at a glance where he stands…. I do not claim for Mr Zilliacus that he is honest, but at least he is sincere. We know where he stands, and he prefers to hit his enemies rather than his friends. Of course it is true that he is saying what is safe and fashionable at this moment, but I imagine he would stick to his opinions if the tide turned”.
George Orwell [Eric Arthur Blair], “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus”. In THE COLLECTED ESSAYS, JOURNALISM AND LETTERS OF GEORGE ORWELL. Volume IV: In Front of Your Nose. Edited Sonia Orwell & Ian Angus. pp. 395-400. Article first published in 1948.
Before I begin this in part jeu d'espirit, I must first disclose that there are few individuals who I detest more than Mr. Donald John Trump. The man is the very epitome of poshlost. A man without the least sense of self-consciousness appears to be a contemporary version of one of the grotesques invented by the immortal 19th century Russian writer, N. V. Gogol 1. With a long-time history of almost clinical narcissism and hubris, it is not in the least surprising that he thinks himself 'qualified' to be the President of the United States. Indeed, as far back as thirty-years ago, he stated that he could become the "nation's negotiator on arms limitation with the Soviet Union". A subject Trump then claimed which could be easily learned: "'It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles '" 2. This individual who radiates such an odd mixture of boorishness and stupidity with almost every word that he utters, should in an ideal universe be sentenced to many, many years as a galley slave in one of his own 'reality television' series. Failing which, should undergo 'de-programming' in some appropriate institution of mental health. The fact that a significant portion of the American public supports his bid to become President of the United States, is merely another positive example of the verity of the dictum of the late, great, H. L. Mencken that: 'no one has ever lost any money underestimating the intelligence of the American people'. With all that being said and understood as a given, I would like to examine as a plausible proposition Trump's idea about banning Muslims from immigrating to the United States. The first thing to be noted is that the question of 'who gains from Muslim immigrating to the United States' is almost never asked. And the analogous question: do the benefits qua benefits outweigh the risks qua risks of said immigration? If one were to look at the matter in this fashion: as solely an utilitarian exercise and not a question of the morals or otherwise of the contemporary American Republic, then one has to thank Trump for at least raising this subject for serious consideration. Since from a historical perspective, the content of what is meant by that lovely (but in fact empty) phrase: 'American values', is extremely difficult to ascertain. If we were to go back in American history, we would see that among other things which were at one time or other constituted American values they have included: 'Slavery', 'White Supremacy', unmitigated, buccaneer 'Capitalism', 'Free Trade', various types of Evangelical Protestantism, et cetera, et cetera. Which is not to gainsay the fact that much if not all of the above no longer would be listed as constituting what we now refer to as 'American values'. Merely that said list has not ever been nor is it likely to be unchangeable and fixed in stone. I would wager than whatever to-day's list can be said to consist of, it is highly unlikely that the very same list will be on offer in fifty years time. I speak of course very much from a non-Whiggish perspective (in the Sir Herbert Butterfield sense of the mot.
Accordingly, when the issue of Muslim immigration is looked at as an utilitarian exercise, I for one would say that: i) the society which has fewer (if ideally no) Muslim immigrants / population is a happier and more successful one; ii) that Muslim immigrants, coming as they do from in the vast majority of cases (not pace from Central Asia mind you, nor Morocco), from Muslim majority countries wherein the religious bigotry and oppression of non-Muslim groups is legally mandated (id est., non-Muslim men cannot marry Muslim woman, Muslims are not allowed to convert to other religions, et cetera), and in many cases said immigrants show no signs of disagreeing with said edicts and practices 3. Nor have they shown in the past historically speaking, an ability to accommodate themselves willingly to the morals and practices of non-Muslim societies; iii) and it is this issue of an inability accommodate themselves to residing peacefully in societies which are not Muslim majority ones, which I contend explains more than anything else the so-called 'alienation' of segments of Muslim communities which reside in predominately non-Muslim countries. It is this type of 'alienation', not that connected with such historically illiterate sociological claptrap, as 'social exclusion', et cetera, which explains why said Muslim communities produce the number of terrorists that they do. In the case of Western and Central Europe, neither of which has much success in assimilating non-European, non-Christian & non-Jewish immigrants, Muslim immigration is a disaster, san phrase. And one can only applaud as the highest reason and statesmanship that countries like Poland and Hungary are not accepting such immigrants. Refugees or no. The real question that needs to be asked in the case of the United States is: whether given the many checks which the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Homeland Security provide in cases of legal, Muslim immigration, is there sufficient safeguards in place to reasonably prevent terrorist cells and outrages from occurring. Au fond of course, there is something whimsical if not in fact Swiftian in this entire discussion. Why so? Given the large numbers (admittedly not as large as say ten years ago) of illegal immigrants who come to the United States, it would appear to be self-evident that a terrorist group like ISIS would make use of such means to plant potential terrorists into the USA. Especially, if legal Muslim immigration were no longer possible. Regardless of this very last caveat, Donald Trump deserves thanks (if not much else) for bringing this issue before the American, nay world public. Albeit the mere fact that it was his 'idea' makes it ever unlikely to be looked at in the serious fashion that it deserves.
1. For the exact meaning of this splendid Russian word, see: V. V. Nabokov. Nikolai Gogol. (1944), pp. 63-74.
2. Sydney Schanberg, "NEW YORK; DOER AND SLUMLORD BOTH". The New York Times. 9 March 1985. IN
3. Gideon Rachman, "Why the west’s view of the Saudis is shifting". The Financial Times. 7 December 2015, in

Saturday, December 05, 2015


"While he wants to show that Turkey will pay a price for the shooting down, Mr Putin is certain to be aware of the risks of an escalation in Syria. Now may be the time to convey discreetly to him that if Russia does not enforce a ceasefire on the Syrians and Iranians, the US will have no choice but to help create a safe haven. Mr Putin has little interest in shoring up the Syrian opposition — and he knows a safe haven on the Turkish-Syrian border will enable anti-Assad forces to grow increasingly unified, meaning the costs of propping up the regime will rise and his own ability to be the arbiter of the Syrian future will fall. But a safe haven would respond to the European need to stanch the refugee flow, and to the Turkish, Saudis, Emirate and Qatari interest in stopping the toll being inflicted on Syrian Sunnis. US allies could take on appropriate roles: European air forces helping enforce the no-fly area; Turkish forces providing protection on the ground; Gulf Arab states funding the infrastructure. President Barack Obama has resisted the idea of a safe haven. But if he wants a ceasefire to produce the “big transition for Syria” that John Kerry, US secretary of state, believes it will, Russia must do what only it can: impose it on Mr Assad and the Iranians. With Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, declaring Moscow will co-operate on Isis only if we “respect the sovereignty and the prerogatives of the Syrian government”, no one should take that as a certainty. Given that our options will narrow in the absence of a ceasefire, Mr Obama must find a way to exercise leverage in Syria — and be willing to threaten, and if need be to take, a step he has resisted until now".
Dennis Ross, "Success in Syria depends on influence in Moscow". The Financial Times. 1 December 2015, in
In recent months there has been a growing crescendo of criticism of the American Administration's policy towards the war in Syria. And while a good number of those critics are the 'usual suspects', id. est., people of a Conservative or neo-Conservative ilk. Recently though, more and more of those critics come from those foreign policy specialists belonging to the President's own party. Or in the case of Dennis Ross, was a high-level advisor to the American President. In keeping with this recent trend and then some, was a talk given at the Lotos Club (of which I am a member) by the former CIA Near Eastern specialist, and former high-level National Security Council staffer in the Clinton Administration dealing with the Near & Middle East. Later of course he acquired fame or (if you prefer) infamy by his outspoken advocacy of a policy of overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2002-2003. Albeit, he stated fairly early on, that his approached differed from that to be eventually adopted by the Bush regime. The following are some of the verbatim and other comments made by Pollack. I must add that I found the event extremely impressive as well as informative. While I did not agree with everything that Pollack said, I cannot gainsay the fact that Pollack is an extremely cogent and intelligent advocate for a particular course in American and Western policy. It is a course which I for the most part agree with. With all that being said, here are some of the comments made by Kenneth Pollack at the Lotos Club luncheon on the 1st of December:
In his twenty-six to twenty-seven years dealing with the Neat & Middle East, matters "never looked worse". And that it appears that things are "headed for worse" to come. As per Pollock, it is an erratum to look back to the Sykes-Picot treaty to conjure up reasons for the current difficulties facing the region. The regions problems date back to the types of regimes which came to pre-dominate after the two colonial powers, Britain and France relinquished imperial rule (1945-1958). Au fond the current crisis facing the region is the breakdown of the post-imperial state-system. A system which was based upon oil revenues (or in the case of regimes like Jordan and Egypt stipends), Cold War financial assistance married to a highly autocratic political system. All three of which were embedded into a 'very traditional social structure'. This system began to show signs of weakening in the 1980's and this accelerated in the 1990's. With the 'Arab Spring' being the culmination of this twenty-five year trend.
The problem of the Arab Spring was the those opposed to the old regimes were unable to establish a new order of any sort. With the partial exception of Tunisia, the end result of the events of 2011, were either a re-assertion of the forces of the old regime (Bahrain, Egypt) or the creation of failed states (Libya, Syria and Yemen), which has in the case of Syria morphed into a "full-blown inter-communal civil war". With the ongoing conflagration perhaps spreading beyond Syria and Iraq into Turkey and perhaps the Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that civil wars of the type now raging in Syria and to an extent in Iraq tend to be both bloody and long-lasting. The example of Afghanistan, which has been undergoing civil war since 1978 being all too likely to repeat itself.
As per Pollock the withdrawal of the United States from actively endeavouring to 'manage' the region is also a major problem. The policy of the current administration, which Pollock labels: 'incremental escalation' is 'not working'. Pollock being brutally frank is stating that: "Obamaa's [the American President] policy is stupid". Russian policy in comparison makes absolute sense. Pollock feels that rather than the current American policy, or a policy of complete or near complete abstention, that what the situation calls for is a policy of American and Western overt and full-scale involvement: diplomatic, economic and military. As he puts it, with the right tools being employed: "there are answers to the Near Eaat". That the region can be turned around, `a la Western Europe after World War II. That the risks of non-intervention outweigh the costs of intervening. In his concluding remarks Pollock stats that he is views the current situation of Saudi Arabia with grave concern. That its current "bombing campaign [in Yemen] is worse than useless". That "Saudi Arabia has no business being in Yemen". That the country has a serious economic (and thus social) problem looming due to the continuing low price of oil, which is hitting the fiscal situation of the country badly. And that this is coupled with a problem with the succession to the current monarch King Salman.