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Islamic State Using Human Shields

The Pentagon says Islamic State fighters in Syria are using human shields to protect themselves from American airstrikes. I can’t verify that claim, but it’s a little like saying the Islamists breathe oxygen. Of course they’re using human shields. It’s what terrorist armies in the Middle East do when facing a civilized enemy.

It wouldn’t accomplish squat against a war criminal like Bashar al-Assad. His regime would happily take out a thousand Sunni civilians to kill a single Islamist fighter. He’d see the thousand civilians as bonus points. But the West doesn’t fight like that and the Islamic State knows it.

Civilians always die in war zones. It’s unavoidable. The United States, however, takes great care to keep that number as low as possible. When the US Army and Marines took Fallujah back from Al Qaeda in Iraq (the Islamic State under its previous name) in 2004, for instance, they first spent weeks evacuating the city of as many civilians as they could before going in.

The US cares more about the welfare of Sunni Muslims in Syria and Iraq than the Islamic State does—which is not likely to help the medieval head-choppers and crucifixion enthusiasts much in the hearts-and-minds department.

Hamas gets an almost-free pass for this gruesome behavior in Gaza, but that’s only because no one but Israelis and Palestinians fear Hamas might one day come after them. Dozens of countries are involved in the war against the Islamic State, including Arab countries, and the Islamic State is clearly at war with the entire human race, beginning with the very civilians it’s hiding behind.

Dig In For a Long War

The Islamic State drove a convoy of stolen Humvees into an Iraqi army base named Camp Saqlawiya just north of Fallujah and exploded themselves. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers are dead or missing.

I paid a visit to Saqlawiya six years ago. “That's where you'll want to go,” an American Marine told me, “if you want to say you get shot at once a week.” Nobody shot at me. Saqlawiya was relatively “quiet” back then because the American military was occupying the area.

The American military is no longer occupying the area. And since the Iraqi army is effectively useless, despite years of American training, the Islamic State can wage its scorched earth campaign of murder and mayhem almost with impunity.

I say “almost” because air strikes by the US-led coalition are putting a crimp in their plans, but IS rules a huge area straddling two large countries and somebody will need to go in there, clear ground, and hold it if anything substantial is going to change.

Likewise in Syria. The US and several Arab governments are now bombing the Islamic State on the Syrian side of the border, including its “capital” in Raqqa and several oil refineries in order to keep cash out of the terror group’s pockets.

Again, though, somebody will have to go in there and clear and hold ground if anything substantial is going to change.

No one we like will be able do that anytime soon. If the Iraqi army can’t handle it at this late date it might never be able to handle it. As for Syria, according to David Ignatius in the Washington Post, “the U.S. military will…lead the training of Syrian forces, but this will take longer because the opposition there starts from a low base of readiness. The hope is that by sometime next year, a well-vetted force of at least 5,000 Syrians, trained in Saudi Arabia and other countries, will be ready.”

Nobody really knows how many fighters the Islamic State has, but estimates are in the tens of thousands. And those 5,000 American proxies in Syria don’t even exist yet.

So in the meantime, any ground cleared of IS fighters will be open to the Syrian and Iranian regimes and their terrorist proxies such as Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollah. Washington may be coordinating with Bashar al-Assad indirectly through the Iraqis and admits that it’s coordinating with Iranian-backed militias through the Iraqis.

We could argue all day about who is more dangerous—the Sunni terrorists of the Islamic State or the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. The Iranian-led bloc isn’t cutting off American heads on YouTube at the moment, but Tehran has a nuclear weapons program and will certainly place Assad and Hezbollah under that protective umbrella if it’s ever completed. IS is unspeakably savage, but it will never acquire that kind of strength or pose a threat to anyone on that scale.

Standing aside and letting the two blocs cancel each other out was always wishful thinking. History and war don’t work that way. Prioritizing threats and focusing on one without indirectly assisting the other is most likely impossible. Defeating both at the same time without a massive commitment of ground forces is also impossible.

So we’re resisting one group of odious actors and boosting the other.

We’ve done this before, most famously during World War II when the US and Britain formed an alliance with Josef Stalin against Adolf Hitler in Germany. The long Cold War against Russia began almost immediately after the allies defeated the Nazi regime. One of the West’s last moves in that war was backing the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation, some of which later formed the Taliban as others joined the Northern Alliance.

If there were an easier way to clean up the world, believe me, we’d do it. But there’s not. So here we are.

When the Syrian civil war started I argued that the Assad should take be taken care of before the Sunni Islamists, but the latter were weaker then, and in any case we’ll have to deal with both in the long run either way. Because there can be no chance whatsoever of peace and quiet in the Middle East until both the Islamic State and the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis are defeated. Effectively dealing with just one of those factions will take many years.

The Obama administration has been perfectly in line with American public opinion these last few years in wishing the Middle East would just sod off and leave us alone. Huge numbers of Middle Easterners have felt the same way about us. After working in and writing about the region for ten years, I’m sick of it too. But we’re stuck with each other, like it or not.

A Dispatch from Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan

My friend and colleague Jonathan Spyer recently traveled to Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan—as usual, the only “safe” places to go in those countries—and published a dispatch from the front line in the war against the Islamic State.

Erbil has changed a lot since I was there last. In early 2013, on my way into Syrian Kurdistan, I had stopped off in the city for a few days to make preparations. Then, the city had the feel of a boom town – shopping malls springing up across the skyline, brand new SUVs on the road, Exxon Mobil and Total were coming to town. It was the safest part of Iraq, an official of the Kurdish Regional Government had told me proudly over dinner in a garden restaurant.

A new kind of Middle East city.

What a difference a year makes. Now, Erbil is a city under siege. The closest lines of the Islamic State (IS) forces are 45 kilometers away. At the distant frontlines, IS (formerly ISIS) is dug in, its vehicles visible, waiting and glowering in the desert heat. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces are a few hundred meters away in positions hastily cut out of the sand to face the advancing jihadi fighters.

The atmosphere in the city remains febrile. It is generally believed that were it not for the rapid intervention of the US Air Force after August 8, IS would have found its way into the city. The American air – strikes stopped the jihadis in their tracks. The land surrounding the city is flat, stark and bare. IS knows that if it seeks to push any further toward Erbil, its forces will be wiped out by American air power.

Read the whole thing.

The Ghosts of Communism in Asia

I awoke from a fitful jet-lagged sleep in Hanoi to the sound of communist propaganda being broadcast outside on a city-wide sound system. It began with patriotic Vietnamese music, which I first thought an annoying neighbor must be playing on a boom box or car stereo, but then the Ant Queen came onto the air.

She obviously worked for the government. Nobody needed to tell me that. She sounded too official to be anything but the spokesperson for the ruler of an ant hill barking orders at worker drones. This was no radio station DJ, and anyway, no radio station on earth blasts an entire city at full volume from a public address system.

I stayed in a small boutique hotel the size of a large bed-and-breakfast tucked between businesses on a main street in the Old Quarter. The sidewalk was just outside and only one story down. Judging by its volume, I could swear one of the speakers was right outside my window.

I rose, bleary-eyed, and when I yanked back the curtain, sure enough, a megaphone wired into a rat’s nest of electrical wires was indeed less than three feet from the glass and pointing at the street and sidewalk below.

Grumbling, I returned to bed. But the Ant Queen wouldn’t shut up. When I emerged from the shower, she was still haranguing the city. When I finished my breakfast downstairs she was still at it.

“What on earth is going on outside?” I said to the woman at the front desk.

“It’s the morning news from the government,” she said. She looked a little embarrassed. “I know it’s loud. Sorry.” She actually cringed when she said the word sorry. She must have to explain this to foreign visitors constantly.

“Oh, that’s just propaganda,” another Vietnamese person said dismissively when I later asked for a second opinion. I’m keeping his name out of this so he won’t get in trouble.

“Does anyone listen to it?” I said.

“It’s impossible not to,” he said and laughed, “because it’s so loud.”

I found the whole thing amusing initially. What an anachronism! I encountered what I would have expected in a place like Moscow circa 1956, and I found it in tropical Southeast Asia in the year 2014.

Somebody recorded one of these state public addresses on a video camera and uploaded it to YouTube. The clip is eight years old, but the phenomenon he recorded is still going strong.

Obviously it’s a leftover from the totalitarian era. I flew to Hanoi from Seattle via Taipei, and I know without even checking that nothing remotely like this exists in Taiwan even though I never made it out of the airport. Nor does anything like it exist in the Philippines. Or South Korea. Or Thailand. Certainly not in Japan.

But a touch of North Korea remains behind in Hanoi.

Vietnam is emphatically not regulated or regimented like its unspeakable neighbor far to the north. For the most part, it looks and feels like a freewheeling place, a country I could live in without much stress at all as long as I stayed out of politics. But its totalitarian past hasn’t entirely faded. No democratic state in the world would inflict noise pollution like this on its citizens. Only an unelected regime that lords it over everyone else from on high would even think of behaving this way in the 21st century.

Vietnam’s one-party state, despite being much more relaxed than it used to be, still spends hours each day broadcasting bullshit into everyone’s ears whether they like it or not. I couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity.

Then it hit me: This is going to wake me up in the morning every single day that I’m here.

“What exactly,” I said to the lady at the hotel’s front desk, “is the woman on that loudspeaker talking about?”

She paused and listened. “She’s telling us about a Communist Party meeting in the ward yesterday.”

The last vestiges of economic communism appear to have been vaporized. Hanoi looks and feels more like a capitalist Wild West than the actual West does these days. But some habits die harder than others.

I never asked anyone the name of the woman who reads “the news” at seven o’clock in the morning to a city that’s spectacularly uninterested in listening to it. Her name doesn’t matter. To me she is and always will be the Ant Queen.

Rice production is up 200 percent!

She isn’t saying anything quite that ludicrous now, but I’ll bet she was back in 1973 when ragged civilians waited in lines on those very same streets to exchange government coupons for meager handfuls of food. Vietnam suffered terrible shortages when its economy was still Marxist-Leninist, but once that system was scrapped and producers were “allowed” to profit from their work on the market, Vietnam became one of the world’s largest exporters of rice.

I only asked a handful of people if they enjoyed getting “news” from the state every morning and then again at the end of the work day, but surveying a handful was enough. Everyone hates it. Is there any conceivable reason why they would not?

Even some government officials think it’s ridiculous.

“For people who live near the speakers, it’s a disaster,” Pham Van Hien said to the LA Times five years ago. “It hurts their ears.” Hien at the time was the chairman of one of Hanoi’s so-called government “communes,” and he tried to convince the party to shut off its public address system and put its broadcasts on the Internet where residents could listen to them voluntarily, but his initiative obviously didn’t work out.

Vietnam’s nationwide English-language newspaper is, for the most part, a written version of the Ant Queen for foreigners. The vast majority of its articles are tedious descriptions in crushing detail of things government officials did and said the previous day.

Here’s an example. “President Truong Tan Sang wrapped up a two-day tour of the central province of Quang Tri yesterday, visiting Con Co island district and inspecting the new-style rural area building programme in Vinh Linh District's Vinh Thach Commune… Sang hailed the locality's efforts to implement the new-style rural area building programme. The commune fulfilled 15 of the 19 criteria and aims to achieve the rest by the end of this year.”

Almost the entire paper is like that. You’ll learn as much about the country reading “news” of that sort as you would if you stayed in your hotel room and napped.

I brought with me the electronic version of Theodore Dalrymple’s book The Wilder Shores of Marx. He visited Vietnam just after the Berlin Wall fell when the country was only beginning to reform its way out of communist economics, and he had a similar experience in one of Saigon’s bookstores.

I picked up a little volume of the recent speeches of Nguyen Van Linh, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Part of Vietnam (ie, the Pope). It was called Vietnam: Urgent Problems. Following the title page was a photograph of the General Secretary: I knew at once I was not in for an exciting read. The first paragraph was unencouraging.

“After several days of diligent and active work with a high sense of responsibility to the Party and people, today the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam has come to fruition.”

Although the book was only 147 pages long, I could not help but recall Lord MaCauley’s review of a two-volume biography of Lord Burghley:

“Compared with the labor of reading these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, the labour of children in the mines, the labour of slaves on the plantation, is but a pleasant recreation.”

 *

Vietnam is no longer totalitarian. It’s merely authoritarian now.

The difference may seem strictly semantic, but it’s huge. Jeanne Kirkpatrick explained it in a landmark essay in Commentary in 1979.

“Traditional autocrats,” she wrote, “leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other resources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.

“Precisely the opposite is true of revolutionary Communist regimes. They create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands in the remarkable expectation that their attitudes, values, and goals will ‘fit’ better in a foreign country than in their native land.”

Most Vietnamese-Americans originate in the south. They and their families moved here after the communist north overran Saigon and annexed the republic of South Vietnam in 1975.

The communists didn’t instigate the widely feared bloodbath, but they did send hundreds of thousands to re-education camps. French historian Jean-Louis Margolin published a letter about the ghastly conditions from prisoners that several dozen orally “signed.” It concluded this way:

“If it really is the case that humanity at present is recoiling from the spread of Communism, and rejecting at last the claims of the North Vietnamese Communists that their defeat of American imperialism is proof of their invincibility, then we, the prisoners of Vietnam, ask the International Red Cross, humanitarian organizations throughout the world, and all men of goodwill to send us cyanide capsules as soon as possible so that we can put an end to our suffering ourselves.”

Hundreds of thousands of south Vietnamese fled the country by boat. They didn’t care where they might end up or that they might not make it at all. All they wanted was out. They’d rather hurl themselves into the ocean and hope for the best than stick around and be ruled by the revolutionary new government. Cuban exiles in Florida can perhaps relate to them better than anyone else.

“Without firing a shot,” journalist David Lamb wrote in his book, Vietnam Now, “the communist leadership managed to achieve what a generation of war had not: the flight of discontents; more than a million Vietnamese left their homeland in three waves between 1975 and 1989. Never before in any country had so many people fled peace.”

The north had been terrorized too, as far back as 1931.

“The Party threw itself into the creation of rural ‘soviets’ in Nge Tinh and started liquidating landlords by the hundreds,” Margolin wrote in The Black Book of Communism, translated and published by Harvard University Press. “An article in the Viet Minh press in Hanoi on 29 August recommended that the people set up ‘traitor elimination committees; in every neighborhood and village…Vietnamese women who had married Frenchmen were also systematically slaughtered, although these actions were blamed on people who were not really members of the Viet Minh. In August and September alone the Viet Minh carried out thousands of assassinations and tens of thousands of kidnappings…These fanatics showed not only their unpitying dogmatism, but also the will toward a totalitarian classification of society that was a driving force inside the Vietnamese Communist Party.”

He estimates that 50,000 people were executed and that as many as 100,000 imprisoned. Not only did fellow communists get the axe—the majority of them got the axe. “86 percent of the members of Party cells in the countryside were purged,” he wrote, “as were 95 percent of the cadres in the anti-French resistance.”

Ho Chi Minh is dead now, as are his economic ideas. Despite scrapping his system, however, the party still lionizes him for being the founding father of modern, sovereign, unified Vietnam.

They embalmed his corpse and keep it preserved under glass. Actually, the Russians did the embalming because they know how. They’re experienced. They did the same to Vladimir Lenin. Ho’s body is periodically returned to Russia for a bit of a touch-up. Former US President Bill Clinton was relieved that Ho’s remains were in Moscow for routine maintenance when he visited in 2000 so he wouldn’t have to face the awkward choice of either paying his respects at Ho’s mausoleum or offending his hosts by refusing.

That worked out for everybody, not just Bill Clinton. A visit to Ho wouldn’t have played well in the US. Scabs on old wounds would have torn open again. Refusing to visit Ho would have cheesed off the Vietnamese government, which is as friendly to the United States now as its people. Clinton was treated like a rock star in Hanoi, and, if anything, the US is even more popular today than it was fourteen years ago.

Washington and Hanoi will never forget that they were enemies once, but there’s no point in making a big public show of it now. The Vietnamese got it over a long time ago, and the country is now arguably richer and freer than Saigon was under the South Vietnamese government that Americans fought to defend from the north.

Few Americans would be offended if I visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, so I put it on my schedule, but the line was three kilometers long in the blazing tropical sunshine. His mausoleum is only open for a few hours in the morning and it’s closed on Mondays and Fridays. I have little doubt that it’s because the government wants a long line. It makes Ho Chi Minh appear more popular than he actually is.

So I didn’t even try going inside. Outside was interesting enough anyway. A man named Nguyen showed me around.

In front of Ho’s mausoleum is a gigantic square that makes mere mortals like me and Nguyen appear gnat-sized. Spread out over much of that area are 360 squares of grass. “Each square represents a group of people in Vietnam,” Nguyen said.

Carrying the analogy forward, I imagined each blade of grass as an individual person. And it gave me the creeps. The entire country is represented as a blocklike structure flat on the ground at the feet of a single dear leader.

I slightly doubt today’s Vietnamese government would design a public space and monument this way. The country is still a one-party state, but it is no longer militarized, regimented, or blocklike. Like the Ant Queen, the mausoleum and its grounds are anachronistic fragments from the past.

A few hundred yards from Ho’s mausoleum is his old house, a simple wooden structure on stilts next to a pond. Across the pond is a museum, an architectural delight that seems a perfect fusion of French and Vietnamese.

Inside, below photographs of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, Ho’s plain wooden dining room table is covered on only one end with a small bit of cloth. “Ho Chi Minh didn’t need to cover the entire table,” Nguyen said, “so he cut the tablecloth and donated the rest so a poor person could use it.”

I thought of the story in America about George Washington and the cherry tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” young George said when his father asked if he felled the tree with an axe. Maybe that story is true, but it’s probably not. It’s a cute little story for kids.

Nguyen showed me the pond behind Ho’s old house.

“Ho Chi Minh came out here every morning and fed the fish,” he said. “He clapped his hands and the fish came. If we clap our hands the fish will still come because they think Ho Chi Minh is still alive.”

He did not attempt to prove that hypothesis by clapping his hands.

The road leading up to Ho’s house is shaded by giant trees—and thank goodness for that. I was dying out there in the heat. “These trees,” Nguyen said, “don’t produce any fruit. Do you know why?”

“Because it’s too cold this far north?” I said.

Nguyen didn’t laugh. I’m not sure he realized that I was joking.

“When Ho Chi Minh planted them,” he said, “the country was only half independent. The south wasn’t yet free. So the trees survived but didn’t produce any fruit.”

These are stories for six year-olds. I doubt Nguyen believes them, but I didn’t ask. He’s an official guide. The government tells him what to say. I can at least attest to the fact that he doesn’t believe every fantastical story because at one point, when telling me about a wooden dragon at one of the local pagodas, he informed me that “dragon is not a real animal.”

 *

Hoa Lo Prison, known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, was built by French imperialists in the 19th century for the warehousing of Vietnamese political prisoners. After the French finally left what they called Indochina, the communist government used it to warehouse American prisoners of war, including John McCain, who later became a US Senator and presidential candidate, and Pete Peterson, who later became a US Congressman and the first US Ambassador to Vietnam after the war.

The Vietnamese demolished most of the prison but left a piece of it intact and turned it into a museum. An office complex now rises over the rest of the site which includes one of Hanoi’s finest Western-style coffee houses.

Most of the museum is devoted to French mistreatment of Vietnamese prisoners, which makes sense since that’s what the prison was used for during most of its life. It includes statues of men with shackled ankles and men forced into slave labor.

Grim murals depict the torture of prisoners. A narrow cell block leads to an execution room complete with a guillotine. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin invented the head-chopping device in 1789 supposedly as a “humanitarian” method for killing. I suppose it was when compared with medieval era devices such as the Catherine Wheel still in use at the time which were arguably more savage even than crucifixion.

I do not believe in ghosts, detectable remnants of bad emotional energy, or anything else supernatural or paranormal, but I nevertheless felt some seriously bad juju inside Hoa Lo. Standing and walking in the very places where people were so mistreated is not a pleasant experience. These kinds of museums are important, but I nevertheless felt like it wouldn’t be entirely wrong if the Vietnamese one day decide to raze the rest of Hoa Lo and build just about anything in its place.

For the Vietnamese the museum is all about France, but I was more interested in the American experience there. The official depiction of the “Hanoi Hilton” era of that building’s history is not, shall we say, unflinchingly accurate. I saw no photographs of Americans in prison cells or any mention that they were abused in any way whatsoever. On the contrary, I saw photographs of American prisoners of war decorating a Christmas tree and playing basketball.

There’s a picture of a young John McCain being treated by a doctor. His flight suit hangs on a wall behind glass.

McCain says he was tortured in there. So does Pete Peterson, our former ambassador. Surely others were too. Yet there’s no mention of it anywhere in that building.

We don’t have to hold it against Vietnam that this happened. McCain and Peterson don’t. They appear to have forgiven their former captors and torturers as much as human beings can forgive such a thing, and they both consider themselves friends of Vietnam now. The Vietnamese, for their part, seek a formal alliance with the United States, and for whatever it’s worth I think they should get it. The Vietnamese won’t torture an American captive ever again, nor will Washington ever again bomb Hanoi.

But the American section of that museum, I have to say, is a farce. Perhaps an understandable one—admitting to and publicly displaying one’s past bad behavior can be uncomfortable—but it’s a farce all the same.

So is Vietnam’s Museum of Revolution, though it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

Of course it’s one-sided, and its descriptions use standard-issue communist boilerplate. Still, its biases cast a revealing light onto the communist north’s view of the world, if not today then at least during the 1960s and 70s.

The southern Vietnamese at that time are dismissed entirely as “puppets,” as if they had no will of their own, as if the only reason they were anti-communist is because the United States persuaded or forced them to be.

Since the United States and Vietnam are at least on friendly terms if not quite allies just yet, since our people and governments both get along without any hiccups, and since the north and the south are unified and more or less at peace with each other, maybe it’s time to jettison that kind of language.

That language is not even accurate. An honest museum might feature on its walls a poem by Trinh Cong Son, which includes the following all-too-true lines. “Open your eyes and turn over the enemy corpses. There are Vietnamese faces upon them.”

The majority of human beings everywhere in the world who found themselves under communist rule ended up, to one extent or another, as anti-communists. Otherwise, communism would still be a viable force. Communist parties would win elections. Communists would never have needed to round up so many political prisoners and send to them to gulags or re-education camps. Communist regimes would never have created so many millions of refugees or felt the need to murder a combined total of 100 million people.

But the word communist means different things in the United States and in Hanoi. The Communist Party is still in power yet Vietnam is a hypercapitalist wonderland. While most of us equate communism with totalitarian economics and government, in Vietnam it also has a nationalist dimension.

They’ll tell you that if you ask them about it, and their definition made a little more sense when I saw an old ration book from the 1970s behind glass. That book, the description said, was from “the subsidy period.” I think of the 1970s as the communist period, but the Communist Party defines it as the subsidy period.

“Vietnam was never all that ideologically communist,” said Pete Peterson, our former ambassador and Hanoi Hilton survivor when I called him at his home in Melbourne, Australia. “It was always more socialist and nationalist. I told them they should stop calling themselves the Communist Party, but I didn’t get anywhere with it. Everybody pays for everything over there, including health care. The government hardly provides anything. Sweden is more socialist than Vietnam.”

That sounds about right. Whether or not he was right about Vietnam’s communists in the past, I know he is right about them today. Back during the “subsidy period,” people used to queue up for handfuls of rice on the same streets where they can now buy smart phones and iPads. Communism, Marxist economics, subsidies, or whatever we want to call it only lasted from north to south from 1975 to 1989 before if was junked.

The totalitarian system of political control has likewise eased up. Facebook and Twitter used to be banned, but they’re not anymore. Vietnamese were once prohibited from even speaking to foreigners, but that hasn’t been the case for a long time. The Lives of Others, one of the best anti-communist films ever made, played in movie theaters in Hanoi while I was there. I could hardly believe it, and yet there it was.

The phrase “regime-change” has been bandied about in the West for some time now and generally refers to the overthrow of a government by external forces, such as the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003. It can also, of course, refer to the kind of revolution from below that we saw in Tunisia in 2011 and in Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall fell.

But there really is a third type of regime-change, and we’ve seen it in Vietnam (as well as in China). The same party, the Communist Party, has been in power for decades, but the party, the regime, has dramatically changed. That change came not from outside the country or from inside and below but from within the regime and the party itself.

The Ant Queen still wakes everyone up in the morning and one could argue that the museums themselves belong in a museum, but these relics of a bygone era stand out so starkly because they’re at odds with everyone and everything else.

Voluntary regime-change isn’t common in history, but it would be wrong to say it’s unheard of.

Post-script: If you enjoyed reading this dispatch, please consider contributing with a donation. Many thanks in advance!

The Brutal Truth about ISIS

My latest was published today in the Sunday edition of the New York Daily News. Here's the first part.

It was inevitable: Our post-Iraq isolationist funk is finally ending. And it’s ending, of all places, right back in Iraq.

President Obama, a mere week after saying ISIS is a problem that needs to be “managed,” is now promising to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist organization that controls a proto-state in huge swaths of Syria and Iraq. He plans a “systematic campaign of air strikes” alongside support for the new Iraqi government and relatively “moderate” Syrian rebels.

The President is the most reluctant of warriors. He campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the most casual observer could see that he was spectacularly uninterested in doing the first thing about Syria’s civil war.

What forced his hand is the fact that the Syrian civil war is no longer the Syrian civil war. It’s a regional war that is exploding into Iraq and to a lesser extent into Lebanon. It long ago sucked in Iran and Hezbollah and is now dragging in Washington, kicking and screaming.

The erstwhile hawkish Republicans have been hardly more interested in getting involved than Obama, what with Syria’s terrorist-supporting President Bashar Assad battling it out with other terrorists. Sarah Palin summed up the mood of her party’s right wing when she wrote “let Allah sort it out” on Facebook.

Why not, right? Iraq has proven to be all but unfixable, and so has Afghanistan.

The reason we must reject the tempting tendency to close our eyes and hope this problem goes away is that Allah doesn’t always sort things out according to American interests.

Life is filled with things we don’t want to do but have to do anyway. No one wants radiation or chemotherapy, but if you get cancer, you’re going to have to take it despite the fact that it might not work and that it will certainly feel like it’s killing you.

Let’s not kid ourselves. ISIS — or ISIL as the President calls it — is cancerous. And it is not a benign tumor. It is metastasizing and will not stop growing stronger and deadlier until it is dealt with aggressively and, at the absolute minimum, contained.

Read the rest in the New York Daily News.

Iraq's Kurdish Firewall

Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga forces worked with the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah to oust Islamic State fighters from the town of Amerli, but now they’re told they are no longer welcome. “We fought for three months here, and now we have to fight these bastards,” one of the Kurdish fighters told Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post. “If this continues, we’ll have another war.”

I doubt the Kurds will get sucked into a war with Iraq’s Shia population, but it’s possible. What’s more striking about this and other recent developments is that Iraq’s Kurds are frequently fighting outside their autonomous region in the northern three provinces.

They’re doing it defensively—they have no interest in conquering and annexing Arab parts of the country—but they’re doing it nevertheless.

They’ve long wanted out of Iraq and they plan to hold a referendum on independence, but for now, thanks to IS, they’re intricately and militarily involved with the country they want to leave.

The Kurds of Iraq and Syria are not strong enough to demolish the Islamic State by themselves or even with help, but they’re perfectly capable of keeping hostiles out of their well-guarded autonomous region and can even push back beyond their own borders with help from their friends in the US and even enemies like Iran and Hezbollah.

The Obama administration is currently looking for allies in the region who are willing to fight the Islamic State and the Kurds are without a doubt the best we’re going to find. They are allergic to radical Islam, they’re more pro-American than even Israelis, and they fight competently and hard.

Washington has been mostly neglecting these people for more than a decade now. Their autonomous region has been stable since the 1990s and they sat out most of the fighting after Saddam Hussein fell, but their holiday from history is over.

The Iraqi Army dropped its weapons and ran when IS approached, and Syria’s ludicrous “president” Bashar al-Assad Syria left IS alone for years since they make him look almost respectable by comparison, but the Kurds are not screwing around. Give them whatever they want and whatever they need—including recognition when they declare independence.

The Fate of Steven Sotloff

Earlier today Gretchen Carlson at Fox News interviewed me about Steven Sotloff and the risks foreign correspondents take when working in war zones. You can watch the clip online if you're interested.

Journalist Steven Sotloff Executed

The Islamic State just executed my colleague Steven Sotloff on camera.

He and I corresponded by email and planned to meet in Libya last year, though it didn’t work out. He had to leave and I had to cancel my trip and re-route myself to Lebanon, so we never actually met. But I did introduce him to the publisher of this magazine and he wrote a few articles for us before he was kidnapped in Syria.

I sort of knew him, though not in the flesh, so I can’t tell you much about him personally, but I can tell you this: he was a hell of a lot braver than I am. I have not for even a second considered going to Syria during this conflict, and I doubt I’d be willing to go there even a couple of years from now if the conflict were to miraculously end later today.

When he lived in Benghazi and everyone was heading for the exits, he told me—and I believed him—that Benghazi was the same old Benghazi, by which he meant mostly fine aside from some unfortunate incidents. Dangerous places are often, though not always, less dangerous than they appear in the media. At least they appear that way.

Maybe that's just a trick of the mind. Those of us who insert ourselves into war zones figure out ways to cope with anxiety and get it to drop nearly to zero. The human mind is extremely adaptable, and it’s easier to neutralize fear when it’s faced voluntarily. That’s why I felt calm in Baghdad most of the time. It’s also why exposure therapy works.  

Steven was brave and unlucky, but he was not stupid. He knew how risky going to Syria was and, according to Ben Taub, he planned to take a hiatus from this nasty business after one final trip and possibly apply to graduate school in Florida.

The Islamic State took that from him, and they took him from us.

I didn’t actually meet him, but I miss him anyway. Sincerest condolences to his friends and family.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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. 

Who Are the Yezidis?

The Weekly Standard asked me to write a piece explaining who Iraq's Yezidis are since I spent some time with them in 2006 and 2008. Here's the first part.

Islamic State terrorists, formerly known as ISIS, have killed at least 500 members of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority in and around the city of Sinjar and taken hundreds of women as slaves. Some of the victims were buried alive. Their only crime: not being Muslims.

Tens of thousands bolted from Sinjar and fled to a remote mountaintop without food, water, or shelter where many more perished. If the United States hadn’t air dropped supplies or blasted the Islamic State from the skies, the number of dead Yezidis could have mushroomed to genocidal proportions.

Even so, the Islamic State’s genocidal intentions are obvious now. Christians, Jews, Druze, Alawites, Shia Muslims, and mainstream Sunni Muslims should expect precisely the same treatment if they find themselves conquered.

If war teaches us about geography, genocide teaches us about ethnic and religious minorities who might remain obscure otherwise. I had never heard of the Yezidis myself until I went to Iraq in 2006 and interviewed the president of Duhok University in the Kurdish autonomous region. He told me to go to Lalish, the Yezidi “Mecca,” where the last of the region’s ancient fire-worshippers believe the universe was born.

The place is scorching hot during the summer like everywhere else in Iraq, but I drove there through empty snow-covered land during the winter. Lalish didn’t look or feel like the center of the universe. It looked and felt like the ends of the earth. The area is as unpopulated as the Wyoming outback, which offers the Yezidis a certain measure of protection. If their “Mecca” were in the center of Baghdad—or, worse, Fallujah—they’d be in more serious danger right now than they already are.

Read the whole thing.

Why the US is Bombing Iraq and Not Syria

Cable news reporters have spent all weekend asking one US government official after another why we’re bombing Iraq and not Syria if we’re motivated by humanitarian concerns as Washington says.

I have yet to hear a straight answer, perhaps because the administration thinks a straight answer is undiplomatic. But I’m not a diplomat, and I can explain it point-blank.

So here it is. It’s real simple. The US is bombing Iraq right now because the psychopaths of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) are attacking the Kurds.

Morally and philosophically, the death of every innocent person on earth—from New York City to Gaza—carries the same tragic weight. Lopping off the heads of Kurdish children in Iraq is not more reprehensible than cutting off the heads of children in Homs or Aleppo, but Syria is hostile and the Kurds are our friends, and that difference matters to government officials and foreign policy makers. If it didn’t, friendships and alliances would mean nothing.

The Kurds of Iraq are our best friends in the entire Muslim world. Not even an instinctive pacifist and non-interventionist like Barack Obama can stand aside and let them get slaughtered by lunatics so extreme than even Al Qaeda disowns them. There is no alternate universe where that’s going to happen.

Iraqi Kurdistan is a friendly, civilized, high-functioning place. It’s the one part of Iraq that actually works and has a bright future ahead of it. Refusing to defend it would be like refusing to defend Poland, Taiwan, or Japan. We have no such obligation toward Syria.

That’s it. That’s the entire answer. Washington is following the first and oldest rule of foreign policy—reward your friends and punish your enemies.

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