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The War Arrives in Turkey

A suicide bomber killed 28 people in the Turkish city of Suruc, just across the Syrian border from the Kurdish city of Kobane that ISIS fought for and lost last year.

Kobane has been devastated, and the site where the blast occurred hosted a meeting of pro-Kurdish groups discussing how to rebuild the city.

No one has claimed responsibility yet, but the attack comes mere days after Turkey supposedly made its very first attempt to crack down on ISIS with a wave of mass arrests.

Maybe the Turkish government only arrested people to get Western critics off its back. And maybe the government has finally woken up to the fact that ISIS, unlike the Kurds, is a threat to the entire human race.

ISIS won’t inevitably attack any place on earth. Micronesia is probably safe. So is Belize. North Korea has other problems. But Turkey is right next to ISIS. If Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia aren’t safe, neither is Turkey.

China’s ‘Core Interests’

Two weeks ago, Thailand forcibly repatriated more than 100 Uighurs, ethnically Turkic Muslims, to their home region of Xinjiang, in China’s northwest. Beijing asserted the Uighurs were aspiring Islamist terrorists, a label authorities often apply to those seeking to preserve Uighurs culture, language, and religion. One of these is Ilham Tohti, a secular professor and blogger sentenced to life in prison in 2014. His “crime” was to argue it is Beijing’s harsh policies that lead to radicalization and stoke conflict between Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese. 

These unfortunate people may be the largest known group whose return China has demanded but other countries, including Cambodia and Malaysia, have also forced back Uighurs to China, where they face imprisonment. Their plight ought to prompt greater attention to what’s happening in Xinjiang, but also to the rationale Beijing uses to justify it.

China’s Last ‘Immortal’ Dies

Wan Li died last week, according to his son. Bloomberg called him the last of the Chinese Communist Party’s “Eight Immortals,” revered post-revolution-era figures. He was 98.

Wan, a reformer, oversaw the breakup of agricultural collectives in eastern Anhui Province, paving the way for family farming. He retired in 1993 after serving as chairman of the National People’s Congress as well as Beijing party chief, railway minister, and vice premier. In 2004, Wan boldly called for liberalization of the party’s decisionmaking.

Syrian Refugees, Through a Rose-Colored Lens

One of the entries in the recent American Film Institute documentary film festival was Salam Neighbor, made by two young American filmmakers who were embedded for a month at the enormous Zaatari refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan. Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci were allowed to live in a UN tent in January and February of this year. Their aim, they said at a special presentation of the movie in Washington, was to shed light on an aspect of the current Middle East turmoil generally given short shrift by the Western media. In other words, news reports concentrate on the fighting and the shifting balance of territorial control, but the fate of refugees is generally relegated to a footnote in the story.

An Uncertain Future

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, argues that the deal with Iran is better than no deal even though he doesn’t expect Iran to stick to its side of the bargain, even though he thinks “the arbitration mechanisms will be challenging,” and even though he expects no one to be as interested in reimposing sanctions in the future as the United States will be.

It’s a tough case to make, and he admits that it’s a close call, but his upbeat argument is more worth reading than most because he acknowledges that the deal’s critics have a strong case.

More convincing, to me anyway, is Elliot Abrams’ argument that Iran got a far better deal than it had any right to expect.

Truthfully, though, this could go either way. Paul Berman, in an interesting short piece for Tablet, argues that the nuclear deal will work smashingly well if political change comes to Iran in the short or medium term and that it will be a disaster if it does not.

The deal will turn out to be a disaster because, in the short run, it will strengthen the Islamic Republic conventionally and, in the long run, will strengthen the Islamic Republic unconventionally—and, all the while, the Islamic Republic will go on treading the dead-end path of violence and rigid ideology and the dream of eradicating demonic enemies. It is hard to imagine how, under those circumstances, the deal will reduce the chances of war…

And if the deal turns out to be a good deal? This could be the case on one ground only: if the deal promotes the kind of Iranian interaction with America and the world that, as the years go by, will erode the appeal of “rigid ideology.” And the deal will turn out to be good—better than good, magnificent—if it buys sufficient time to allow the erosion to take place and the change in thinking to occur. Everything depends on this one point.

Indeed, everything does depend on that point.

Look. No one has any idea, really, what’s going to happen in Iran over the next couple of years. That country has been on the verge of revolution against the regime for some time now, and almost pulled it off after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rigged election.

Perhaps it will happen next year or the following year. Or perhaps the regime will stagger onward for decades like the Soviet Union did, long after it should have expired.

None of us knows. And because we don’t know, we can’t really know if this deal will work out or not. But if Iran doesn’t change for the better—and the regime certainly isn’t planning to change for the better—we’re going to have to start over from zero.

Two Mass Graves: Ukrainians and Jews

I discovered two mass graves in the forest near my mother’s home town in western Ukraine, Peremyshlyany, located 47 kilometers east-southeast of Lviv.

The former Przemyślany is also a former shtetl. Its prewar population was about 5,000; its current official population is 7,000–8,000, though, given the large number of residents working abroad, it’s probably closer to the prewar level. The composition of the town has changed dramatically. The Jews and Poles, who comprised about 45 percent apiece of the prewar population, are gone: killed, expelled, or fled. About 90 percent of the prewar Ukrainian population had also been killed or expelled, or had fled. Most of the town’s current Ukrainian inhabitants have no roots in Peremyshlyany, being the progeny of villagers who settled there after World War II.

Rewriting Japan’s ‘Peace Constitution’

On Sunday, 40 soldiers from Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force participated in the biennial Talisman Sabre exercise in northern Australia, jointly held by the US and Australia.

Japan’s involvement in the massive military event followed a flight on June 23rd of one of its P-3Cs over contested waters. The patrol plane flew about 100 kilometers west from the Philippine island of Palawan into the South China Sea. The craft came close to Reed Bank, claimed by both Manila and Beijing, and then headed back to base. On board, three Filipino military personnel accompanied the Japanese crew of 13.

Most Americans Skeptical of Iran Nuclear Deal

Well, the United States and Iran struck a deal. I’ll be poring over the details in the next days and weeks, but in my latest essay for World Affairs I argue that there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that it will work regardless of the contents.

I’m sorry to be negative about this. Really, I am. Americans and Persians are not natural enemies. Some day, when Iran has a new government, our two nations will genuinely reconcile. But that day has not yet arrived. Iran’s current rulers are as implacably hostile as they’ve always been.

I’m hardly alone in my skepticism. Monmouth University conducted a poll of 1,001 Americans nationwide and found that only 5 percent of us trust Iran “a lot” to stick to the deal. 58 percent don’t trust Iran at all. Democrats are divided. 45 percent only trust Iran “a little,” and another 45 percent likewise trust Iran “not at all.”

Only a third of us trust the Iranian rulers even a little, but that’s still a large enough percentage that I can safely say we’re divided on this question.

The Israelis, however, are not divided. Neither, for that matter, are the Sunni Arabs, who are as skeptical and alarmed as the Israelis.

Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, lays out the Israeli position in Time magazine.

Back in 1994, American negotiators promised a “good deal” with North Korea. Its nuclear plants were supposed to be frozen and dismantled. International inspectors would “carefully monitor” North Korea’s compliance with the agreement and ensure the country’s return to the “community of nations.” The world, we were told, would be a safer place.

It wasn’t. North Korea never forfeited its nuclear plants and the inspections proved useless. The community of nations is threatened by North Korean atomic bombs and the world is anything but safe. And yet, against all logic, a very similar deal has been signed with Iran.

And Iran is not North Korea. It’s far worse. Pyonyang’s dictators never plotted terrorist attacks across five continents and in thirty cities, including Washington, D.C. Tehran’s Ayatollahs did. North Korea is not actively undermining pro-Western governments in its region or planting agents in South America. Iran is. And North Korea – unlike Iran – did not kill many hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

So why, then, are only Israelis united in opposing this deal? The answer is that we have the most to lose, at least in the short run. We know that the deal allows Iran to break out and create nuclear bombs in as little as three months, too quickly for the world to react. We know that the Ayatollahs, who have secretly constructed fortified nuclear facilities that have no peaceful purpose and have violated all of their international commitments, will break this deal in steps too small to precipitate a powerful global response. And we know that the sanctions, once lifted, cannot be swiftly revived, and that hundreds of billions of dollars Iran will soon receive will not be spent on better roads and schools. That treasure will fund the shedding of blood.

We skeptics could be wrong. No one is right about everything, and the Middle East is always surprising. Iran might actually mothball its nuclear program if its rulers think they can accomplish their objectives with other means.

But there’s no reason to trust the Iranians not to use the financial windfall from sanctions to back terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East. The deal doesn’t require them to stop, so why would they?

Is Obama Moving Too Fast with Vietnam?

Vietnam’s Communist Party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, met with President Obama at the White House on July 7th. Trong’s visit is historic, the first to the United States by a Vietnam Communist Party chief, and a big step in a relationship that has been transformed since the end of the Vietnam War.

The Obama administration would like Trong’s visit to be seen as part of its “pivot” to Asia, the 2011 initiative to redirect America’s strategic focus to a region increasingly dominated by China. The problem with this is that without emphasis on democratic values—an integral part of the pivot according to the president himself—Trong’s Oval Office reception not a strategic gambit but another in a string of concessions to repressive governments for which Obama’s presidency is becoming known.

The Iran Delusion

My latest essay for the print edition of World Affairs is now available online.

The chattering class has spent months bickering about whether or not the United States should sign on to a nuclear deal with Iran, and everyone from the French and the Israelis to the Saudis has weighed in with “no” votes. Hardly anyone aside from the Saudis, however, seems to recognize that the Iranian government’s ultimate goal is regional hegemony and that its nuclear weapons program is simply a means to that end. 

The Middle East has five hot spots—or “shatter zones,” as Robert D. Kaplan called them in his landmark book, The Revenge of Geography—which are more prone to conflict than others, where borders are either unstable or porous, where central governments have a hard time keeping everything wired together, and where instability is endemic or chronic. 

Gaza, where Hamas wages relentless rocket wars against Israel, is one such shatter zone. The Lebanese-Israeli border, where Hezbollah does the same on a much more terrifying scale, is another. Yemen, which is finally falling apart on an epic scale, has been one for decades. Syria and Iraq have merged into a single multinational shatter zone with more armed factions than anyone but the CIA can keep track of. 

What do these shatter zones have in common? The Iranian government backs militias and terrorist armies in all of them. As Kaplan writes, “The instability Iran will cause will not come from its implosion, but from a strong, internally coherent nation that explodes outward from a natural geographic platform to shatter the region around it.”

That’s why Iran is a problem for American foreign policy makers in the first place; and that’s why trading sanctions relief for an international weapons inspection regime will have no effect on any of it whatsoever. 

*

Iran has been a regional power since the time of the Persian Empire, and its Islamic leaders have played an entirely pernicious role in the Middle East since they seized power from Mohammad Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, and held 66 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. 

In 1982, they went international. When the Israelis invaded Lebanon to dislodge Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Army, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders forged a network of terrorist and guerrilla cells among their coreligionists in Lebanon’s Shia population. 

Hezbollah, the poisoned fruit of these efforts, initially had no name. It was a hidden force that struck from the shadows. It left a hell of a mark, though, for an organization of anonymous nobodies when it blew up the American Embassy in Beirut and hit French and American peacekeeping troops—who were there at the invitation of the Lebanese government—with suicide truck bombers in 1983 that killed 368 people. 

When Hezbollah’s leaders finally sent out a birth announcement in their 1985 Open Letter, they weren’t the least bit shy about telling the world who they worked for. “We are,” they wrote, “the Party of God (Hizb Allah), the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran . . . We obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and faqih [jurist] who fulfills all the necessary conditions: Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini. God save him!”

The Israelis fought a grinding counterinsurgency against Hezbollah for 18 years in southern Lebanon before withdrawing in 2000, and they fought a devastating war in 2006 along the border that killed thousands and produced more than a million refugees in both countries. Hezbollah was better armed and equipped than the Lebanese government even then, but today its missiles can reach Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and even the Dimona nuclear power plant all the way down in the southern part of the country. 

Until September 11, 2001, no terrorist organization in the world had killed more Americans than Hezbollah. Hamas in Gaza isn’t even qualified as a batboy in the league Hezbollah plays in. 

Hezbollah is more than just an anti-Western and anti-Jewish terrorist organization. It is also a ruthless sectarian Shia militia that imposes its will at gunpoint on Lebanon’s Sunnis, Christians, and Druze. It has toppled elected governments, invaded and occupied parts of Beirut, and, according to a United Nations indictment, assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. 

Hezbollah is, for all intents and purposes, the foreign legion of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The parts of the country it
occupies—the northern Bekaa Valley, the Israeli border region, and the suburbs south of Beirut—constitute a de facto Iranian-controlled state-within-a-state inside Lebanon. 

After the United States demolished Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime in 2003, Iran’s rulers duplicated their Lebanon strategy in Iraq by sponsoring a smorgasbord of sectarian Shia militias and death squads that waged war against the Iraqi government, the American military, Sunni civilians, and politically moderate Shias. 

Unlike Lebanon—which is more or less evenly divided between Christians, Sunnis, and Shias—Iraq has an outright Shia majority that feels a gravitational pull toward their fellow Shias in Iran and a revulsion for the Sunni minority that backed Hussein’s brutal totalitarianism and today tolerates the even more deranged occupation by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. 

The central government, then, is firmly aligned with Tehran. Iran’s clients don’t run a Hezbollah-style state-within-a-state in Iraq. They don’t have to. Now that Hussein is out of the way, Iraq’s Shias can dominate Baghdad with the weight of sheer demographics alone. But Iran isn’t content with merely having strong diplomatic relations with its neighbor. It still sponsors sectarian Shia militias in the center and south of the country that outperform the American-trained national army. They may one day even supplant Iraq’s national army as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has more or less supplanted the Iranian national army. Iraq’s Shia militias are already the most powerful armed force outside the Kurdish autonomous region and ISIS-held territory. 

When ISIS took complete control of the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, in May of 2015, the Iraqi soldiers tasked with protecting it dropped their weapons and ran as they had earlier in Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah. So Iraq’s central government tasked its Iranian-backed Shia militias with taking it back. 

On the one hand, we can hardly fault Baghdad for sending in whatever competent fighting force is available when it needs to liberate a city from a psychopathic terrorist army, but the only reason ISIS gained a foothold among Iraq’s Sunnis in the first place is because the Baghdad government spent years acting like the sectarian dictatorship that it is, by treating the Sunni minority like second-class citizens, and by trumping up bogus charges against Sunni officials in the capital. When ISIS promised to protect Iraq’s Sunnis from the Iranian-backed Shia rulers in Baghdad, the narrative seemed almost plausible. So ISIS, after being vomited out of Anbar Province in 2007, was allowed to come back.

Most of Iraq’s Sunnis fear and loathe ISIS. They previously fought ISIS under its former name, al-Qaeda in Iraq. But they fear and loathe the central government and its Shiite militias even more. They’d rather be oppressed by “their own” than by “the other” if they had to choose. But they have to choose because Iran has made Iraq its second national project after Lebanon. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. At least some of the tribal Sunni militias would gladly fight ISIS as they did in the past with American backing. If they did, residents of Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul would view them as liberators and protectors rather than potential oppressors, but Tehran and Baghdad will have none of it.

“All attempts to send arms and ammunition must be through the central government,” Adnan al-Assadi, a member of Parliament, told CNN back in May. “That is why we refused the American proposal to arm the tribes in Anbar. We want to make sure that the weapons would not end up in the wrong hands, especially ISIS.”

That may appear reasonable on the surface, but ISIS can seize weapons from Shia militias just as easily as it can seize weapons from Sunni militias. The real reason for the government’s reluctance ought to be obvious: Iraq’s Shias do not want to arm Iraq’s Sunnis. They’d rather have ISIS controlling huge swaths of the country than a genuinely popular Sunni movement with staying power that’s implacably hostile to the Iranian-backed project in Mesopotamia. 

Read the whole thing.

Iran is Not a Bulwark

An unnamed American diplomat told the Sunday Times in Britain that President Barack Obama “believes a peaceful Iran could be a bulwark against ISIS in the Middle East and the key to peace there.”

The Iranian people and government strongly oppose ISIS, no doubt about it. They are predominantly Shias while ISIS is the most deranged Sunni Islamist terrorist organization in the world. Its attitude toward the Shia is outright genocidal. It’s easy, then, to see why a powerful Shia bloc might act as a “bulwark.”

The problem here is that the Iranian-led Resistance Bloc—which includes the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a smorgasbord of Iraqi Shia militias—is the primary instigator of ISIS.

Look: ISIS is just Al Qaeda in Iraq with a different name and under new management. The Sunni tribes of Iraq forged an alliance with the previously hated American military in the late 2000s in order to vomit out the old version of ISIS.

The only reason it came back—aside from the fact that it grew strong enough to come back while resisting the Assad regime next-door in Syria—is because Iraq’s central Iranian-backed government scares the daylights out of Iraq’s Sunni minority with its heavy-handed Shia sectarianism.

An exhaustive public opinion survey in the Middle East conducted by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies found that support for ISIS in Iraq stands at four percent. Support for ISIS in Lebanon is as low as one percent. Support for ISIS in Jordan—where it’s strongest—stands at a mere eight percent.

So forget the ludicrous notion that ISIS has a groundswell of public support. It doesn’t.

Many of the local Sunnis are just making a deal with who they perceive as a lesser evil to to act as a bulwark—to use the unnamed diplomat’s phrase—against what they see as a greater evil, Iran and its proxies in Damascus and Baghdad. Westerners have forged similar temporary pacts in the past by siding with communists against fascists, and vice versa.

Only four percent of Iraqis support ISIS, but that’s about 20 percent of Iraq’s Sunnis—enough for ISIS to gain a foothold if it sufficiently terrorizes the remaining 80 percent.

The president seems to get this in Syria. “The only way that the civil war will end,” Obama said, “is an inclusive political transition to a new government without Bashar Assad, a government that serves all Syrians.”

A government that serves all Syrians may be impossible at this point. Syria effectively no longer exists. There’s the Alawite-led rump state in the Damascus corridor and on the coast, a nascent Kurdish state in the north, and the so-called “Islamic State” in the east. Stitching that disaster area back together again with an inclusive government would be delightful, but getting from here to there seems awfully fantastical at this point.

At least the president understands that getting from here to there is impossible with an Iranian-backed regime in the saddle. Why he thinks it will be any easier in Iraq is a mystery.

Obama Breaks Protocol, Slights Top Chinese General

Contrary to Beijing’s expectation, President Obama declined a Pentagon request to receive Chinese General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, while he was in Washington during his five-day visit in June. Fan, described by the South China Morning Post as “a military heavyweight and one of President Xi Jinping’s most trusted right-hand men,” is the first CMC vice chair in at least two decades—perhaps the first ever, as some report—not to meet with a sitting American leader during an official visit to Washington.

It appears Fan was slighted at the Pentagon as well. The general did not get the usual 19-gun salute at his welcoming ceremony, nor was it particularly well attended by senior American officers. In the end, the delegation was denied the DC pomp and ceremony and those prized White House photo ops that authoritarian regimes crave to show their legitimacy to audiences back home.

The US Bombs Raqqa

Coalition forces (a euphemism for the American Air Force) bombed the ISIS “capital” of Raqqa from the skies on the 4th of July.

Brett McGurk, the US envoy for the coalition, says the latest attacks were “the most sustained air strikes to date” against ISIS in Syria.

That’s great and all, but the war against ISIS is still spectacularly unserious. A mere eighteen vehicles and bridges were destroyed.

ISIS has a lot more than eighteen vehicles, and there was a time not long ago when they didn’t have any. They were just a modest insurgent force hiding out in the shadows.

They gained traction because Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria would rather tolerate fanatical Salafists than the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis in Damascus, Tehran, and Baghdad. That’s the root cause, and no one is doing the first thing about it.

There are only two ways to eradicate ISIS.

Someone will have to go in there and kill them.

Or the locals need to rise up as they did in Iraq’s Anbar Province in the last days of the Iraq war and make it impossible for the “caliphate” to operate in their areas. That might happen if ISIS crucifies enough children or lashes too many people for smoking, but in all likelihood we’ll first need regime-change in Syria and Iran.

In the meantime, we’re doing the war-fighting equivalent of fighting lung cancer with cough drops.

What New Ukrainian Exceptionalism?

Having just lauded Kennan Institute Director Matthew Rojansky and two colleagues for a fine piece on Ukraine’s relationship with the United States, I hate to change my tune and criticize him for a subsequent article co-written with a Ukrainian academic, but their views on the “new Ukrainian exceptionalism” are so divorced from reality as to be mystifying.

Rojansky and Mykhailo Minakov, associate professor in philosophy and religious studies at Kyiv’s prestigious Mohyla Academy, begin their piece by paying due respect to Ukraine’s “struggle not only for its sovereignty, but for its very survival as a nation-state.” Rightly, they argue that “In this hour of need, every Ukrainian citizen and every self-described friend of Ukraine in the international community should not only speak but act in support of Ukraine.”

Then they slip off the rails:

Iran’s Dubious Track Record

With the recent weeklong extension of the deadline for a final nuclear deal, Iran’s track record of incrementalism and obfuscation toward the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has never been so instructive. Indeed, recent revelations suggesting an increase in Tehran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile are merely the latest example of its incremental transgressions. As international negotiators go into overtime seeking to transform a framework into a final accord, they may discover that the history of IAEA dealings with Iran is more useful in helping draft, implement, and enforce any deal than is their current political back-and-forth with Tehran.

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