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The Nusra Front's Impossible Demand

Considering the events of the last couple of weeks, you could be forgiven if you forgot that the Islamic State isn’t the only terrorist group fighting in Syria. There’s also the Nusra Front.

They recently kidnapped peacekeepers from Fiji monitoring the ceasefire on the Israeli-Syrian border. (They also surrounded Filipino peacekeepers who managed to escape.)

The Associated Press reports that they won’t release the hostages unless the United Nations takes them off its list of terrorist organizations.

I’d say someone should tell these guys that if they don’t want to be called terrorists they shouldn’t do terroristy things like taking hostages, but they are the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, so fat chance of that ever happening.

Is Russia Suited for Democracy?

MOSCOW — One of the key themes of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine—both for domestic and for foreign consumption—has always been the supposed lack of a better alternative. However unattractive Putin’s corrupt and authoritarian regime, the implicit reasoning went, its replacement would be worse—radical nationalists or leftists. It was no accident that, during the mass anti-Putin protests in 2011–2012, state television channels went out of their way to pick out communist and nationalist flags in the crowd—even though communists and nationalists accounted for, respectively, 13 percent and 6 percent of the demonstrators, while the vast majority expressed pro-democracy views.

This “argument”—from a regime that routinely labels Russia’s democratic opposition “Russophobic”—assumes that, given a choice in a free election, the Russian people would inevitably vote against democracy; that Russians are somehow uniquely “unsuited” for a democratic system that has proven perfectly workable in other post-communist (including Slavic) states.

The Weak US Response to China's Aggression in the Skies

On August 19th, a Chinese J-11 fighter intercepted a US Navy P-8 reconnaissance plane in international airspace, 137 miles southeast of Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

Three times, China’s jet crossed directly under the slow-moving P-8, once coming perhaps as close as 50 feet. The J-11 also passed in front of the American craft “with its belly toward the P-8 to show its weapons loadout,” according to Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Pool. “In doing so, the pilot was unable to see the P-8, further increasing the potential for a collision.”

Next, the Chinese pilot flew under the P-8 and then came alongside, bringing his wingtip within 20 feet of the Navy plane. Finally, the J-11 conducted a barrel roll over the P-8, passing within 45 feet. “The intercept was aggressive and demonstrated a lack of due regard for the safety and well-being of the US and Chinese aircrews and aircraft,” said Pool.

Gertrude of Arabia and Other British Arabists

The New York Times recently published an article on Gertrude Bell, the English archeologist and intelligence officer credited more than any other single individual with creating modern Iraq, drawing the borders and choosing its king after World War I. Bell was a member of the Arab Bureau in the British intelligence office in Cairo along with the more famous agent, T. E. Lawrence. The Times’s point was that Bell’s legacy of a unified Iraq “is at risk of being undone” today, even as historic sectarian conflict between Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds threatens to fragment the country.

But the other point was that Bell, and other British Arabists like her, spent years cultivating tribal leaders, sheikhs, and kings and gaining their trust, and their lives are woven in the tapestry of early 20th century Middle Eastern history. The Iraqis called Bell Umm’al Mu’mineen, or Mother of the Faithful.

Loose Cannons and Ukrainian Casualties

So now the number of dead Ukrainian soldiers is 722. The number of wounded is 2,625. The Ukrainian army keeps on making slow but steady advances; the pro-Russian terrorists appear to have suffered heavy losses; Russian regular forces are openly engaged in the fighting; Russia’s “humanitarian convoy” apparently looted some Ukrainian armaments factories on its way back home; and, on August 25th, Russian tanks crossed into Ukraine just north of the Sea of Azov.

All is definitely not quiet on the eastern front.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Kyiv on August 23rd, where she expressed support of Ukraine. Some Ukrainians were unhappy that her support wasn’t stronger, but they should remember that her very presence in Ukraine on the eve of its Independence Day celebrations was a powerful message to Russia’s unconstitutionally elected president, Vladimir Putin.

Don't Cooperate with Assad

The US is considering air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq and the Syrian government says any unilateral action that isn’t coordinated with Damascus will be seen as an act of aggression.

President Bashar al-Assad would be perfectly content, however, to have the United States fighting on its side. That’s what he wanted from the very beginning. He hoped Americans would forget or simply not care that he is the Arab world’s largest state sponsor of international terrorism and has even cooperated with ISIS under its previous name to kill Americans in Iraq.

He might pull it off. Nicholas Blanford, a brilliant analyst of Levantine politics, explains why that would be dangerous in the Christian Science Monitor.

One of the grim ironies of the Syrian civil war is that IS has flourished in Syria in part due to the manipulations of the Assad regime itself. As initially peaceful protests turned into sectarian war in the latter half of 2011, Assad appears to have understood that secular moderate rebel factions posed a greater long-term threat to his survival than bands of wild-eyed Islamist extremists. Moderate rebel groups were more likely to win the logistical backing of the US and other Western countries that could provide sufficient leverage to oust Assad.

On the other hand, if the rebel ranks were dominated by Al Qaeda-style Islamist groups, the West would balk at providing support and could eventually even side with Damascus.

In a cynical but skillfully exploited strategy, hundreds of Islamic militants were released from Syrian prisons in the first few months of the then generally peaceful uprising.

Some of those militants became leading figures in groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which today is Al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and one of the most effective anti-Assad factions. IS was originally an Iraq-based group that began extending its influence into Syria in 2012, drawing ever-expanding numbers of recruits and earning a reputation for brutality. Unlike Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel factions, ISIS has been more interested in acquiring territory and funds to build its self-declared caliphate than in tackling the Syrian Army. And the Assad regime, until recently at least, was generally content to leave IS alone, especially as the extremist group’s attacks against moderate rebel rivals turned it into a tacit ally of Damascus.

With IS, analysts say, the Assad regime has quietly nurtured the perfect enemy – one that prefers to battle Assad’s more moderate opponents but whose brutal behavior has alarmed the international community and spurred calls in the West to bite the bullet and consider resuming cooperation with Damascus.

“In a very disciplined way, Bashar al-Assad is trying to maneuver the US into collaborating with him against ISIS in eastern Syria, even as he stands aside while ISIS tries to finish off the nationalist Syrian opposition in western Syria,” says Frederic C. Hof, senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a former State Department adviser on Syrian affairs. “This appearance of collaboration [between Damascus and Washington] will, in Assad's view, facilitate his eventual return to polite society while promoting tension between Washington and its Gulf partners.”

[…]

A European ambassador in Beirut who is in regular contact with a broad array of opposition groups in Syria, including ISIS, warns that any Western coordination with the Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawites, a splinter sect of Shiite Islam, would further inflame Sunni sentiment across the region and further afield, deepening the sectarian dynamics of the conflict and rallying more recruits for IS.

If the West joins forces with the Assad regime to fight ISIS, it will be perceived as “Crusaders fighting with Alawite infidels against Sunnis.… It couldn’t be worse,” the ambassador says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The experienced diplomat says that IS can be defeated if Sunnis in Syria and Iraq are brought into an alliance against the extremist group. Recalling a recent phone conversation with a member of IS in northern Syria, the ambassador quoted the militant as acknowledging “the more it becomes a Sunni-Shiite war, the faster we will grow.”

Wild Rumors As News in the Arab World

During the horrible fighting in Bosnia in 1995,the Onion proposed that the US should send vowels to that country. “For six years, we have stood by while names like Ygrjvslhv and Tzlynhr and Glrm have been horribly butchered by millions around the world,” said the satiric paper, channeling President Clinton. “It is time the people of Bosnia finally had some vowels in their incomprehensible words.”

In a like spirit of laughing through our tears I propose to send something to the Arab world: epistemology. In Arab news media—print, broadcast, and cybernetic—you can say almost anything you want, and people will believe it, so long as it pertains to Jews. 

The Worst Fate Possible for a Journalist

Last year when Libya still looked like it might be okay I planned my second visit. It would have been my first since the overthrow of Moammar Qaddafi.

An American journalist who lived in Benghazi emailed me and said we should meet for coffee once I arrived. I liked the idea, partly because he could show me around and introduce me to people, but mostly because I would not be alone in a strange and potentially dangerous city. No one, not even war correspondents, enjoys being alone in such places.

Then several governments, including our own, ordered its citizens out. Westerners headed for the exits and European airlines stopped flying to Tripoli. I had no choice but to cancel my trip. Nothing much bad was happening at the time, but several foreign intelligence agencies, including the CIA, concluded that something horrible was likely to happen and that people like me had to clear out of the way.

I didn’t know what, exactly, they were worried about, which only made my own anxiety worse. What I dreaded more than anything was being kidnapped. I’ve risked getting shot and blown up in a number of different war zones, but I will not go to a place where I stand a serious chance of being grabbed by terrorists. I decided long ago I would let would-be kidnappers shoot me in the street before I’d get in a car with them even at gunpoint.

So I cancelled my trip to Libya and went to Lebanon instead. Knowing I had a colleague and a friend-to-be waiting in Benghazi wasn’t enough. There is safety in numbers, sure, but we journalists can only do so much to protect each other. He seemed disappointed, but he too ended up leaving Libya and went to, of all places, Syria.

His name is Steven Sotloff. And he was kidnapped last August by ISIS. Last weekend ISIS executed our colleague James Foley on camera and said Sotloff is next. Sotloff appears in the video too and personally witnessed Foley’s beheading.

I never met him, but now I can’t stop thinking about him and worrying about him. Sometimes it makes me physically sick. We were going to meet in Benghazi. I’m sure we would have become friends. We have friends in common already and, believe me, hanging out with colleagues in dangerous places is a bonding experience. He published a few articles in this very magazine because I introduced him by email to the editors and the publisher.

Apparently ISIS demanded 132 million dollars in ransom money from Foley’s family before killing him—an impossible amount. The government could pay it, of course, but will not. Rewarding kidnappers only encourages more kidnappings and puts even more people at risk.

Instead the US military tried to rescue Foley, Sotloff, and other so-far unnamed journalists who are supposedly being held. The operation didn’t work out. The victims were at another location.

Washington can’t pay ransoms, but it could and probably should offer a large cash reward for intelligence that leads to a successful rescue. Kidnappers might try to collect the reward money themselves, which would make it a ransom by other means, but there’s an easy way around that—kill all the kidnappers. Do not arrest them and send them to Guantanamo. Kill them.

I have no doubt Washington is looking for Sotloff and the others right now. They’ll send men if they think they know where he is. They’ve already tried at least once. We can only hope they’ll succeed before it’s too late.

In the meantime, to all of my colleagues: for God’s sake, stay the hell out of Syria.

Hitler and Putin: A Tale of Two Authoritarians

Will Russia’s unconstitutionally elected president, Vladimir Putin, unleash a full-scale land war against Ukraine?

I can give you ten reasons for every possible answer to this question. Which is to say that, like everyone else trying to divine Putin’s “mind,” I don’t know.

But there is one thing that I definitely do know. Suddenly, we are all talking about war in Europe. The one thing that was supposed to have become “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” after the end of the Cold War and the rise of the European Union has become perfectly thinkable and quite imaginable.

And all thanks to Putin. If tomorrow’s headlines scream “RUSSIA INVADES ESTONIA,” we’d be shocked, but would we be surprised?

Don’t blame the thinkability and imaginability of war on the Ukrainians. All they did was remove a corrupt dictator and embark on building a democracy. The Ukrainians didn’t invade Crimea. Nor did they arm separatist republics with Russian soldiers and weapons. That was Putin’s doing and only Putin’s doing.

China Policy as Cliché

“President Obama has made it clear that the United States welcomes the rise of a peaceful, prosperous, and stable China—one that plays a responsible role in Asia and the world and supports rules and norms on economic and security issues,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in Hawaii last week, in a major policy address. “The president has been clear, as have I, that we are committed to avoiding the trap of strategic rivalry and intent on forging a relationship in which we can broaden our cooperation on common interests and constructively manage our differences and disagreements.” 

Some observers marveled at how many clichés and abstractions America’s top diplomat was able to insert into just one speech. Said Peter Jennings of the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “Countries will be a little disappointed that after the secretary’s six visits to the region, US policy seems to be still largely aspirational but lacking detail on how to achieve these aims.”

Vice News Embeds With the Islamic State

I’ve just returned from a very brief summer vacation in a remote part of the Pacific Northwest without cell phone coverage or Internet access, so I’m a bit behind on what’s happening in the world. While I’m catching up, take a look at Vice magazine’s five-part documentary on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

I don’t know how they did it, but they somehow got permission to embed a team of reporters with IS in both Syria and Iraq. There is no chance I would ever trust these people with my life and my safety, but the team got in and out okay and what they came back with is extraordinary.

The Islamic State is a deadly serious army with delusional global ambitions. Someone will have to defeat it with force, and it won’t be one of the local armed forces. Not any time soon. I’m sorry to say this, but if you watch Vice magazine’s documentary I doubt you’ll come to any other conclusion.

Back to Iraq?

In many ways the US airstrikes targeting the Islamic Sunni extremists in Iraq are the Libyan playbook brought up to date, but they also recall a longer, broader aerial offensive in Iraq more than 20 years ago that began as Operation Provide Comfort before morphing into a long, ambivalent, low-grade war involving US, British, and—at first—French combat jets.

In 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, the US, France, and the United Kingdom launched a containment strategy against Saddam Hussein, enforcing a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. The initial objective was to support coalition ground forces in the Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq. When the troops left the no-fly zone was kept in place with the declared intention of protecting the Kurds from Iraqi attacks.

Civilians or Plainclothes Combatants in Gaza Death Toll?

Could it be that most of the Palestinians who died in Gaza were combatants? The claim that the vast majority were civilians fueled a global anti-Israel outpouring during the war in Gaza to which even our own State Department and White House contributed. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of August 13th 1,965 had died in Gaza of whom 1,417, about 72 percent, were civilians. This office has issued running totals daily that have been the basis for virtually all news reports on the subject. But these reports beg the question of how the OCHA knows who is a “civilian.” And, moreover, the numbers themselves suggest a very different assessment from what the OCHA offers.

Hamas Threatened Reporters in Gaza

The Foreign Press Association is protesting “in the strongest terms the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month."

Of course this happened. Gaza is ruled by a dictatorship and a terrorist army, and this is what dictators and terrorists do. I’d flatly refuse to believe any report that said otherwise. Hezbollah pulled the same crap with me in Lebanon, and that was during peace time, not war time. I also told my readers about it and refused to be censored. And Hezbollah, at least in some ways, is less oppressive and controlling than Hamas.

Alan Johnson published a round-up of first-person reports in The Telegraph if you want to know the nuts-and-bolts of how this actually works.

Here is just one:

Israeli filmmaker Michael Grynszpan described on Facebook an exchange he had had with a Spanish journalist who had just left Gaza. “We talked about the situation there. He was very friendly. I asked him how come we never see on television channels reporting from Gaza any Hamas people, no gunmen, no rocket launcher, no policemen. We only see civilians on these reports, mostly women and children. He answered me frankly: 'It's very simple, we did see Hamas people there launching rockets, they were close to our hotel, but if ever we dare pointing our camera on them they would simply shoot at us and kill us.'”

I understand why these reporters didn’t write about this while they were in Gaza. They could have been kidnapped or killed. Perhaps their editors back home kept quiet for the same reason, to protect their employees and freelancers.

There is a solution to this conundrum, however. Don’t send reporters to places where they are intimidated into lying by omission or commission.

The Gaza war was a huge story, of course, and it had to be covered, but it could just as easily have been covered from the Israeli side of the line. Covering both sides of the story is of course preferable whenever possible, but providing balanced coverage from Israel alongside censored coverage from Gaza is a form of journalistic malpractice. Stop it. 

‘Criminal in the Kremlin’: An Interview with Professor Walter Clemens

Below is an interview I conducted recently with Walter Clemens, a professor emeritus of political science at Boston University and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

* * *

MOTYL: Walter, you’re well known for tackling complex moral and legal issues of international relations in your work. One of your books was Can Russia Change?

CLEMENS: I’m still doubtful.

MOTYL: Your current project is titled “Can—Should—Must We Negotiate with Evil? The World and North Korea.”

CLEMENS: The subtitle could also read “The World and Vladimir Putin.”

MOTYL: What should the international community do about Mr. Putin?

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