Monday, April 11, 2016

Little Rocks, Big Deal: Podcast on the South China Sea

So for those of you wondering what I'm up to in my analysis time, here's the answer: I'm spending most of my effort on working on Something to Consider. We have a podcast called ReConsider, and we just dropped two great episodes on the South China Sea.

The Spratly, Paracel, and Senkaku islands, in the South and East China Seas are a powderkeg right now. Probably even more than the Middle East or Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia is at biggest risk of becoming a war between major powers.

Take a listen: we have two great episodes to unpack the whole thing.

The first gives the incredibly complex context in Southeast Asia, Chinese and American foreign policy.

The second describes specifically what's going on in the islands now, what the risks are, and what the options are for the US.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why Putin Pulled Out of Syria

Monday, 3/14: Putin announces sudden pullout of Syria, saying he conveyed it to Assad the day before, saying that Russia had "achieved its objectives."

It was a surprise. Given Putin's foreign policy style, as usual, it was unpredictable. As usual, Americans and the West were generally left flat-footed. I was actually pretty surprised that Russia pulled out before Aleppo fell to government forces.

Russia getting out certainly feels like good news. Is it?

Yeah, probably. It's unlikely that this is a dubious trick by Russia: they've got a stalemate with a shaky ceasefire that's... actually holding. The rebels took such a shellacking that they're in no position to launch a sudden counter-offensive (I think). The ceasefire is likely to hold. Humanitarian relief can reach Aleppo, and it's possible some refugees will start being able to return to what's left of home.

But why not just extend Assad's power? Why pull out now? I think there are a few key reasons:

  • Russia's economy sucks. Like seriously. Their GDP is $2 Trillion, which is--yes--1/8th that of the United States. Russia is more like Mexico than a serious-business global power. Throwing tons of money into bombs, fuel, and other operations costs is bloody expensive. Historically low oil prices and sanctions over Ukraine have been killer: its GDP has shrunk at a rate of 4% over the past year and it's likely to continue. They just can't plain afford a prolonged operation, and they've likely learned the lessons of over-reach that the Americans learned in the 2000s.
  • Russia is far more concerned with its own borders. Ukraine is unlikely to be able to take back Donbass on its own... but Russia doesn't want them to be tempted. Russia is, in fact, still a very vulnerable regional power with enemies all about. It's got to keep its focus there, and doesn't want to take its eyes off for too long. 
  • Killing all the rebels is not going to happen. There are just too many. 
  • Russia doesn't actually want Assad to rule over an empire of ruin. They want a country that can get itself back on its feet--what's the point of having a client state if it's just a rotting hulk? 
Realistically, the best Russia can hope for is a coalition government with Assad still in power until 18 months down the line. Putin is nothing if not pragmatic in his realpolitik.

Was this a good move for Russia? Well, suddenly talks have picked back up--literally the day after the pullout began. Assad's much more willing to negotiate without Russia covering for them, and that's what Russia really wants: serious peace talks that just end the bloody war already. Other Syrians are more willing to talk now that it's just a 1:1 fight. Both sides have their patrons (the US and Russia) in these talks, both of which will be supporting their side while trying to twist some arms to get real commitment.

The final good sign for Russia--besides the ceasefire holding--is that opposition and government forces have both turned their guns on ISIS, and are making some gains... even without serious support from Russia.


Now that the Syrian army has shifted its focus (finally) to ISIS, it's pushing to entrap the ISIS forces in the northwest. I'm guessing it's pushing to al-Thawrab in order to cut off the 2nd link (the Kurds took care of the first) between Aleppo and ar-Raqqah (the ISIS capital). ISIS committed a lot of troops there... particularly hoping to pick at the warring Syrian factions. 

This will be Syria's 2nd-toughest operation against ISIS (before the battle for ar-Raqqah, if it comes), and everyone is really tired. Putin is cleverly leaving the monkey on the back of the US coalition to bear the costs of air support. But encirclement would be a great first step. If everyone's able to coordinate their efforts, ISIS will be get pressed on 3 fronts here. Not sure if that can happen. 


The Syrian army got pushed out of Palmyra and back to the front door of Homs, but is turning the tide. We see them expanding in 3 directions here to take back heavily populated areas and dislodge ISIS into the desert, where it will be much more vulnerable.


Opposition forces have quickly advanced to the border with Iraq, probably high-fiving Iraqi army forces at the border crossing. They've now got a pocket of ISIS pretty well surrounded and cut off. One of many tough parts about the ceasefire is that there might be a bit of a scramble for territorial control if/as government and opposition troops advance on ISIS positions. It might be tough to not end up shooting at each other. It'll be a big test of the ceasefire.

So that's all the news that's fit to print today. Still giving my very controversial thumbs-up to Russia on this one; I think they accelerated the peace-building process pretty significantly.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A Big, Fat, Hairy Update on Syria and Iraq

Lots has happened since we last updated you about ISIS, Iraq, and the Syrian civil war. We're going to make an effort here to cover all the key changes on the ground, discuss how they happened, pat ourselves on the back about being right, and then tell you what we think is going to happen next.

Enjoy. Thanks as always to the tireless efforts of the Wikipedia editors of the Syria/Iraq map.

So there are 3 big places to look at this fine leap day:

  1. Anbar
  2. Mosul
  3. Aleppo
But that's really where we always look, because that's where the hot action is.


Ramadi fell a couple of months ago, and the Iraqi army--in its usual excruciating slowness--has pivoted towards Fallujah. This is a tougher nut to crack. It gave the Americans hell twice during the occupation. But it's also full of people pretty sick and tired of ISIS's crap, so they're less prone to really enthusiastically take up arms against the government. They're also sometimes carrying out attacks on ISIS troops there. Sunni volunteers have come from around Anbar to join Iraqi forces, which will be a plus during the upcoming door-to-door. 

It's hard to get out of Fallujah, and conditions are pretty crappy right now, but the Iraqi army has the city totally surrounded and has set up very heavily armed checkpoints for those trying to escape. This also means that ISIS is able to escape, which is a mixed blessing: 600 have slipped out, leaving only 400 behind, but it means those 600 won't be eliminated (and they're probably on their way to Mosul).

The big black dot in the middle there is really just the city center: the army now has the surrounding neighborhoods. One of the reasons it's taking its sweet time there is that coalition warplanes are softening the city with airstrikes, and the army really can't afford another "drop your guns and flee" debacle.

Fallujah is pretty much a ghost town at this point, and scraping through the city center is going to be sucksville, with all the booby traps and sweet sniper positions in the rubble. But it'll get done.

And then, finally--finally--on to Mosul. But don't get too excited.



The Kurds, being the very fierce bros (and don't forget the many very bad sis's, too) and deciding (with much US coordination) to take matters into their own hands where they can, decided it was about time to cut off the Raqqah-Mosul supply line. For those forgetting, Raqqah is the de facto capital of ISIS. Mosul is the largest city they've got. 

Some months ago, the besieged Syrian Army almost lost al-Hasakah. The Kurds decided they'd swoop in and take care of it.

But a few weeks ago they also decided to push south and cut off the final highway that's at all plausible to use to resupply Mosul from Syria. So in addition to Sinjar--where the two key highways meet--the Kurds now control the relevant border crossings in the north.

So there's a lot of nope for anyone in ISIS trying to sneak anything across that can't fit under a burka.

Mosul is far from surrounded, and it's still using ISIS's typical leeching strategy to extract resources from the countryside, but it won't be getting more heavy weapons or serious troops from Syria, which means the coming siege has its flank covered.

Nice work. Did we call it? Totally. The Kurds probably won't march on Raqqah, but they've got enough staying power to make some strategic moves, and holding the northern supply routes is the biggest solid they can do for the war without going all out. Expect them to help in Mosul, as well--there are a lot of Kurds in the city. Or at least there were.


So this is a hot mess. 

Russia showed up a few months ago and started bombing the snot out of the city and surrounding countryside with the intent of getting government troops back in charge. At this point, Aleppo makes Fallujah look like Miami beach, but it's strategically and symbolically critical. 

Russia's air campaign has reinvigorated the government's northern campaign. And it's killed a lot of people, including lots of civilians. It's dirty, mean work. It spawned another wave of refugees

But we're holding onto our controversial position here that the Russian intervention is the best chance Syria has to end this war and beat ISIS any time soon. The ongoing rebel-government stalemate is good for two interests: ISIS, and the grim reaper. More on that later.

What we're seeing on the ground is a massive offensive out of the al-Safira area. Southeast of that, by that lake, government troops surrounded and disintegrated an ISIS offensive. They're surrounding Aleppo from the north and south, and have cut off the rebel supply line from Turkey. They're pushing northeast, and recently lifted the siege on a military base that has been holding out against ISIS for over a year. It's moving pretty fast.

ISIS has really committed pretty big to the area. They finally captured the symbolic town of Dabiq (where their weird prophecy says they'll bring about the apocalypse) as the rebels have collapsed. Right on cue, the Kurds--having none of that--have started to push back in. They're butting heads with the government, but have managed to not start killing each other yet. 

The Kurds have also finally crossed the river from the east, pushing towards Manbij. It's a little later than I expected, but it's good timing: ISIS committed to the Aleppo front and that left the back door to Manbij open. The Kurds made a quick sprint towards the town but have faced some stiff resistance. At this point they may wait for the government to beat on ISIS a little more before finishing the push.

At this point, the Kurds are hoping to expand their territory to cover more Kurdish population in that area near the border, both to protect them and to stake their claim when the dust settles.

Back to the government: taking Aleppo and isolating rebel forces in the north could lead to the end-game for the war. And that's a good thing.


We're feeling pretty vindicated about our support of the Russian intervention: breaking the stalemate and giving one side an advantage (something the US wasn't willing to commit to) is what's going to end the war. And it's working.

The rebels, sensing that things aren't going to go their way, have come to the bargaining table with a willingness to compromise, which might mean elections or a coalition government. So far, Secretary of State Kerry has brokered a truce with Russia: the "moderate" rebels and government troops are supposed to stop fighting each other. The truce went into effect two days ago.

It appears to be holding--mostly. Russia has halted airstrikes on "moderate" rebel positions, and for the most part the guns have quieted around Aleppo. Russia is still hitting al-Nusra Front (the white space on the map), because they're crazy terrorists. It's--once again--a pretty masterful coup by Russia: al-Nusra is currently allied with the moderate rebels, and they're definitely the better fighters. In this truce, Russia has divided and conquered Assad's political enemies, and with the moral high-ground on the deal.

You might be asking: "If Russia/Assad are winning, why the truce?" Remember that the reason to win is to rule over a country. If it gets pounded into the dirt, there won't be much of a country to rule. Ultimately, total destruction of the rebellion would be enormously costly to Assad's troops and to the population and infrastructure. Assad does not want to rule a shell. The point is to convince the rebels they can't win, not to kill literally everyone that disagrees. 

And further, there's ISIS to deal with. As we've said before, they won't get dealt with until there's a united front between Assad and the rebels. And without a doubt, nobody's suggesting a truce with ISIS. So if this truce holds, ISIS has 3 enemies with guns--finally--pointed towards only them.

Will the truce hold? Probably-kinda, the way it's kinda holding in Ukraine. If they can get some traction, they'll be able to start really squeezing ISIS back towards the east, and have some serious talks about the political solution while they're organizing a final offensive. Working together against a common enemy will do some good to start putting antiseptic into festering wounds in the country.

Assad's going to scrape together something of a victory out of this. Is that the best thing? Almost certainly. Given the political climate in Syria, I can't imagine a rebel victory turning into anything better than post-invasion Iraq or post-intervention Libya, and lord knows we don't want that.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Houthis Staged a Major Comeback While Nobody Was Looking

As much as it's a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils, I've been rooting for the Yemen government in the Yemeni civil war, in part because the official Houthi logo/motto is:

"God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam."

This is on their flag, which means it's flying over the parliament building in Sana'a right now. So yeah, we're rooting for the government.

Bad news, though. The Houthis have not only halted the government's advance (remember back when the government broke out of Aden and started marching north?), but have totally reversed gains and each week are gobbling up more territory as they push back towards Aden.

It had looked for a while like there might be a tough stalemate in which the Houthis kept their "prime" territory with lots of supporters and lost the rest, and then they would make a deal of some sort, but...

Well, it's looking bad.

Here's October 12th:

Here's today:

I'm actually quite shocked; I'm not certain how a truly committed Saudi Arabia could be losing this war, but the casualty numbers are so low (maybe 2500 total soldiers killed across all groups?) that they suggest the Saudi commitment wasn't what I thought. Haven't yet done my research.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Putin Keeps Initiative and Drives Progress with Diplomacy and Deception

Who is Putin even bombing in Syria?

The US claims it's "moderate" Syrian rebels in an effort to crush them for Assad.

Turkey claims it's bombing ethnic Turks as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Russia claims it's bombing ISIS and other radical Islamist groups.

Is everyone right? Kinda, depending on how you define these things. 

The US has a pretty shady definition of "moderate" with respect to rebels--it includes some hardcore Islamists that have allied with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and are part of the official "opposition" meeting in Riyadh. Some ethnic Turks are part of the "rebel" alliance and are probably getting bombed.

The whole Syria thing is so messy that one can essentially make any claim one wants to unless one really limits one's targets to ISIS and only ISIS (which the US is doing). From the above image, we can see that Russia has sortof an "all of the above" strategy.

Here's where Putin becomes pretty brilliant: in response to these accusations, he has asked France to provide a map of the specific anti-ISIS rebels so that he can avoid bombing them.

There are a few clever things going on here:

  1. It forces the West to actually plant a flag in the ground on each of the dozens of Syrian rebel groups. Were Assad to fall, which ones would fight ISIS and which ones would align with them? The West really only talks about 3 groups: Assad, "Rebels," and ISIS. Asking for this map forces the West to decide whether it really wants to declare al-Nusra Front (et al) to be friends.
  2. It forces the West to acknowledge how inter-mingled these groups are. One often sees al-Nusra and the FSA fighting side-by-side, although each with an eye on the other. 
Putin won't--and shouldn't--commit to only attacking ISIS, as it would be the same strategic folly as the US has been perpetuating for a while. But without a doubt he is targeting ISIS, including oil wells and pipelines that have been funding these guys for years (leaving me to wonder why the US never got around to that).

But it looks like Putin is positioning himself to be the leader of a grand coalition by offering a path forward for the opposition that the US has not been wise or clever enough to do for Assad.

He's "taking the feedback (from the West) in stride," if you will, and is now declaring that he won't attack FSA targets and will, in fact, provide air support for them--if they're attacking ISIS. It's in fact a great way to twist the arms of an opposition group and potentially turn them into an ally: if the FSA allied with the Syrian Army against ISIS, the ground game would change. 

Well, doesn't that sound bloody reasonable? He said he'll even coordinate with the US on fighting ISIS, as well. 

And Putin is largely responsible for the upcoming Vienna talks that will seek a ceasefire between (as many) opposition groups (as possible) and the Syrian Army. Coordinating with the FSA is likely a first step at trying to wedge them away from the Islamist groups they fight alongside. Given that the US ultimately supports the FSA as the "valid" representatives of Syria, it would be an incredible coup--the Islamist portions of the rebellion would be left out in the cold.

Putin's calling for an election that would represent "all the ethnic and religious groups" of Syria--which means Shiites and Alawites as well as Sunni Arabs--which is something that our Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning President probably couldn't openly object to. Vienna may lead to that if Putin is able to manipulate the FSA in the US in the right way--and he seems to be making progress by a combination of exerting pressure, evading blame, and offering a positive relationship as a "carrot."

Putin's realpolitik is likely to do a lot more than talk of hope-and-change to promote peace in Syria. Perhaps the Nobel committee should be reconsidering who gets that chunk of gold next time. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

US Strategy in Syria is Just Insane

As I've been writing my other book, I've been taking breaks and reading a lot about Syria and Iraq because I keep hoping we're going to do something different.

We're not.

I'm not going to talk here about why the US might be choosing such a terrible strategy, but simply outline the ways in which it is so terrible in light of surprisingly limited criticism.

(It has helped me to replace "President Obama" with "President Bush" whenever I read articles about Syria to get a sense of how the public would be reacting if it was making stronger connections to the initial Iraq invasion and that goofy Texan everyone loves to hate.)

So let's tell the Syrian story in some context.

The Arab Spring

Early 2011, a whole bunch of countries in the Arab World start protesting their heavy-handed secular governments. These protesters tended to be some combination of:
  • Western-looking, clean-shaven, tee-shirt wearing liberals (not "progressives" but "liberal" in the sense of "a liberal democracy") that wanted a liberal democracy of their own
  • Oppressed ethno-religious minorities or majorities
  • Hard-core Islamists that wanted to replace these very secular regimes with some form of Sharia
(First, I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which of these groups are most and least likely to form powerful, long-term militias if anarchy begins in the state.)

Western media mostly portrayed the protests of the first group in places like Benghazi, Homs, Cairo. The protests of ethno-religious minorities in places like Bahrain that were put down by Saudi military action got much less attention.


In 2011, Qaddafi decided to put down the protests before they could become a rebellion, so he began a pacification campaign from Sirte going east towards Benghazi.

The US and some of its EU allies decided to intervene with air support to keep tanks from rolling in and slaughtering Benghazi, which seemed like a nice thing to do.

Scope creep took over, and the West decided that really the only way to keep the people  of Benghazi and elsewhere safe was to provide air support to militias to defeat the Libyan army and overthrow the regime.

That happened quite successfully, and Obama was clever enough to not get on a giant aircraft carrier with a "Mission Accomplished" banner because he is better at managing the media than Bush was, but the US decided we were done.

Immediately after Qaddafi fell, we left, and the militias that had fought against him looted army bases and armories as the army dissolved.

A democracy was formed, but it was plagued by well-armed militias and now-unemployed (and pariah) former army and government personnel. Violence and skirmishes plague the country for 3 years.

(Again, I encourage the reader to replace "Libya" with "Iraq" and "Qaddafi" with "Hussein.")

The story evolves a bit in 2014 as elections are won by Islamists who are pretty terrible, who then immediately get voted out but--oops--decide not to respect the election and use their militias to hold Tripoli. Libya dissolves into a (very slow) civil war between the new Libyan army and the Islamist militias. In the meantime, a whole bunch of different Islamist militias (called the Shura Council) take over half of Benghazi and the Islamic State decide to move in because the place is such a mess that they can get a foothold in there; ISIS takes over Derna and Sirte. And then some other local militias, who are tired of everyone, carve out their own territories. There are now 6 groups fighting each other in Libya. 

(Libya also makes for strange bedfellows: the Tobruk gov't is supported by the US, Russia, UAE, Algeria, Jordan, and Egypt; the Islamist government in Tripoli is supported by Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey.) 

It's been a stalemate for the past 2 years.

"Fogg, what does this have to do with Syria?"

While one could give the US the excuse of thinking that "the intervention in Syria will totally be different from Iraq because we're not putting boots on the ground and trying to run the show from Washington," the lessons from Libya leave no such excuse, even for so inexperienced a foreign policy team that led the State Department when the US got involved in Syria.

(When I say Libya's civil war is slow, I mean slow. About 5,000 people have died since the beginning of 2014. 

Syria, on the other hand, has led to probably 300,000 deaths, 130,000 captured or missing, 8 million internally displaced people, and 4 million refugees. )

The one thing that the US and Western allies did right in Libya was support the rebels decisively, which at least knocked Qaddafi out of the fight. This has led to far fewer deaths and a much more "soft" civil war. 


Syrian protests started in 2011 because Assad has ruled with an iron fist as a pretty terrible dude, oppressing the Arab majority, generally putting his cronies in charge, having a Gestapo-like secret police make people disappear, etc. 

Things really blew up when he decided to torture a kid that spraypainted some critical stuff on a wall. Homs quickly got basically taken over by protesters. Assad reacted just like Qaddafi would have, had the US and allies not provided decisive air support: he's been bombing the heck out of rebel strongholds to try to end the rebellion as quickly as possible, and sending in troops with that air support wherever he can.

So what are we doing in Syria? The US has been supporting "moderate rebels" since 2011. But the word "supporting" is an odd one. We are funneling some weapons and supplies to them (which we did in Libya), but we are not bombing Assad. This is probably to keep from open conflict with Russia. 

Just as a reminder, the US and allies like Germany have been steadfast that Assad has to go before any political settlement can be reached. The US considers a totally dysfunctional patchwork of Syrian rebel representatives to be the "government of Syria," which is at least as silly as insisting for 22 years that the Taipei exile government was the "legitimate government of China" and that the Communists were just upstarts that would go away someday. 

Back to Assad. Assad knows that if he "goes," he faces a chopping block, and so do his cronies. The West is too ideologically pure to cut a deal and say, "look, we'll buy you guys a sweet island and grant you immunity." Dictators like Assad face "justice." So the US has pretty explicitly said, "Assad, you have to win this war or you and your family will die."

So there's a lot of motivation for Assad to keep fighting, even as Syria crumbles.

The US' half-hearted supported for Syrian rebels is just enough to keep the fight going. They have enough armaments to keep shooting and not collapse.... at least as long as they're allied with the al-Nursa Front, who is literally al-Qaeda. These guys are the really intense, zealous fighters that are really sticking it to the Syrian regime. Also, just in case we forgot, ISIS was classified as "part of the rebels" early in the war and between 2011 and 2013 we were still arming them. 

Sure, we tried to train some new "moderate" Syrian rebels so that they'd be more powerful, but we managed to train four or five of them before giving up. 

So now we're basically allied with al-Qaeda against Assad, because the "moderate" rebels are really kindof just the hood ornament. 

Imagining Victory

Let's imagine for a moment that we provided air cover and gave the rebels enough support to actually topple Assad. (This is possible if we support the southern front of Rebels with serious air cover, knock out Syrian bases and air power and supply lines, etc.) We could have done this with the "red line" excuse: back in 2013, Obama promised a big thick red line of Assad used chemical weapons. He went ahead and used them about 17 times, and we said, "er, well," and kept up our current strategy.

Anyway. Let's say the Syrian regime collapses, and let's say it collapsed before ISIS took over half the country. You've got Kurds in the northeast that want their own country, and then you've got the moderate rebels that number 40,000-50,000, and a bunch of al-Qaeda-and-friends (which includes a lot of groups) that number between 100,000 and 160,000. 

They duke it out. Guess who wins?

Basically, I don't see how the US imagines any outcome of the collapse of the Syrian regime besides al-Qaeda or ISIS or both taking over Syria.

But Forget That, Because Victory Ain't Happenin'

The Syrian regime is very, very different from the Qaddafi government and the Hussein government: it has pretty broad popular support, decisively controls the fertile heartland of Syria, and has the steadfast support of heavy-hitters like Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia (who are willing to put troops on the ground and are willing to bomb the heck out of the rebels, unlike the West). So we're not the only guys parachuting weapons and providing intel: the Syrian government is getting it, too. This is an all-out proxy war, which was not the case in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan.

So these groups have been tearing each other to pieces. Guess who gets to step in and fight at their convenience wherever these two groups are weak? You guessed it: ISIS. Remember that Obama called ISIS "the JV team" of al-Qaeda and we grossly under-estimated their potential strength (which he later lied about). 

But now ISIS has taken over tons of oil resources and is actually constructing some semblance of a functional state--something that no radical Islamist militia has been able to do since the Taliban emerged out of US support for the mujaheddin back in '89.  Now that they've more or less decided not to mess with the Kurds (who are a very united force thanks to their long history of shared ethnic oppression), they get to pick their battles and operate with a great deal of impunity.

The Syrian regime and the Rebels are too concerned fighting each other to be able to oppose ISIS with any serious fervor. Each hopes it's going to win and can then turn its attention against ISIS with united support from the international community. The Kurds aren't going to come in and save Syria--they have no interest in shedding their blood for that. 

(Wikipedia. Note the green "rebels" are the loose alliance of the "moderate" and Islamist rebels.)

The US and allies are bombing ISIS, yes, but ISIS is highly resilient. Remember when we bombed the Viet Cong and North Vietnam for 13 years and the North Vietnamese totally just gave up? Me neither.

So This is Officially Pretty Insane

The depth of delusion at the highest levels of the US government--and the utter refusal to learn and adapt--is frustrating and frankly mind-boggling. 

To summarize:
  • The US is half-heartedly supporting rebel troops just enough to extend a war, but definitely not win it, which gives ISIS plenty of room to grow
  • Oh right, we also armed ISIS for a few years
  • The US is currently allied with al-Qaeda and a bunch of other Islamist groups and that totally won't be just like the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan 
  • If the US decided to whole-heartedly take down the Syrian regime, al-Qaeda-and-friends would almost certainly smother the fractured moderate rebels and take over the country
All scenarios here lead to utter disaster, for decades.

The only way one can support the Syrian rebels and even hope for them to come out on top is to commit Iraq-level troops and support for probably just as long and just as bloody a conflict. And even then, you might just end up with the same kind of corrupt, fractured government that you have in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

But what we're doing right now is just terrible.

Enter Russia

Before I get started, readers should know by now that I'm generally extremely critical of Russia's foreign policy and territory-grabbing, to the point where I sometimes have to re-write posts to keep my frustration to a minimum.

At the UN, basically looking right through to the US Ambassador towards the White House, Putin says, "Do you now realize what you've done?"

For once, I've got to hand it to the guy. 

Russia has actually decided to end the war. It's putting troops in Syria and providing air cover to help Assad's troops carve back territory from rebels and ISIS alike. Russia's aim is to keep Assad in power, yes, but ending the war decisively will bring the nightmare of Syria to an end. 

Russia is actually the best opportunity the US has to get out of this. I know I said I wouldn't speculate on why we insist on such a stupid Syrian policy, but I think some of it is an attempt to "be consistent" and generally save face: we're not going to suddenly start supporting our named "bad guy" in the fight. And we've already backed down once on a line we drew in the sand (chemical weapons). We're probably resistant to coming out and admitting we're wrong.

But we're wrong, and it's killing lots of people.

Russia has proposed a political solution: the rebels ally with Assad to take out ISIS, and in 2 years after everything has settled a bit (which is pretty ambitious), you have elections. If the Syrian people want Assad, he stays, even if he's awful.

"Erik, are you saying we should change policy and prop up Assad?" Absolutely. We should have done it years ago, before each army was beat to snot, but while the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the 2nd best time is now.

The way out is to work together with Russia and Iran, withdraw our support for the Syrian rebels, and tell them they get no more weapons or air cover unless they stop fighting Assad and turn all their guns on ISIS, full-stop. Any group that doesn't becomes our enemy.

It would be embarrassing to admit. But diplomacy is weird: everyone can know we're doing something stupid, but we somehow save face by not admitting it.

But what we're doing in Syria is immoral. 300,000 people have died, the country is a giant pile of rubble, 12 million people have left their homes (only 1/3 of which have made it to the tent-camps of other countries). The moral move in Syria is to end the war. The only way to do that--excepting an Iraq-style commitment that risks direct conflict with Russia--is to support Assad. Full-stop. 

This is Way, Way Worse than Iraq

Hopefully you have been reading this with my instruction to draw parallels to Bush and Iraq.

Syria's worse. Way worse. It has led to the deaths of maybe half of Iraq's 600,000 (and led to the deaths of more than 3x Afghanistan's 100,000) body count, but Iraq also has twice the population of Syria--so in much less time, as much of the country has been killed. Far more have lost their homes.

And unlike Iraq, there is absolutely no end in sight, and the destruction of Syria has been far more thorough than the destruction if Iraq. Iraq has cities, and an economy. Its GDP per capita (PPP) is about $15,000 per year and has been growing every year since the Hussein regime fell. Syria's GDP per capita (PPP) has dropped to maybe $2,000 after having lost more than 60% of its economic output (without the war, it would probably be about $7.000). Its HDI is hard to measure, but basically imagine that everyone in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Derna, Idlib, Palmyra, etc, is living in bombed-out concrete husks without access to basic supplies, and 10% of the population is stuck under ISIS. 

The Syrian war's human toll--and long-term consequences--make Iraq pale in comparison. And it's the way it is because of US policy since 2011.

The Controversy over Syrian Refugees is Comically Depressing

The outrage over some in the US not wanting to take 10,000 Syrian refugees is not wrong, but it's completely misplaced. The idea that our moral duty here is primarily to 10,000 people currently in Turkish or German or Greek camps, and not to the 17,000,000 Syrians we're subjecting to a protracted, nightmarish war so the current administration can try to save face, is absurd.

Why the same Americans that protested Iraq aren't in the streets now protesting Syria is beyond me, but my current guess is that the guys in charge are wearing the Blue Team jersey rather than the Red Team jersey.

Screed over.
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