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France’s “Merciless” Response to ISIS is Anything But

After last week’s coordinated string of terrorist attacks in Paris that killed more than 100 and wounded more than 300, ISIS says France will remain on “the top of the list” of targets, that this is just “the first of the storm” against “the capital of prostitution and obscenity” and “the carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe.”

France is promising a “merciless” response, but what we’ve seen so far has been anything but.

With American help, the French air force launched just a handful of air strikes against the ISIS “capital” Raqqa in eastern Syria.

Activists on the ground say there were no civilian casualties. That’s certainly good. It’s what distinguishes Western armies from terrorist armies and gangster regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s. Western armies do their imperfect best to minimize civilian casualties, whereas murdering civilians in places like restaurants, newspaper offices and concert venues is all ISIS does.

The problem with the French response isn’t that the air strikes apparently killed no civilians. They apparently didn’t kill any ISIS members either. 

“Anybody who attacks the Republic,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said, “the Republic will fight back. It is not they who will destroy the Republic. The Republic will destroy them.”

Not with a handful of mostly theatrical pin pricks.

Destroying ISIS will take a hell of a lot more effort than that.

ISIS, of course, can’t destroy the French Republic or any other Western nation no matter how much effort it exerts short of somehow acquiring nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. ISIS can’t even destroy all of Syria or Iraq—not that they haven’t given it their best shot so far.

But ISIS doesn’t need to destroy the French Republic or any other state to inflict an extraordinary amount of damage. Just look at what one guy— Seifeddine Rezgui—did in Tunisia five months ago.

He casually strolled up to a bunch of British tourists on the beach and murdered 38 of them with a Kalashnikov.

The police shot and killed him, of course, and dozens of local Tunisians tried to stop him and even volunteered as human shields, but the damage was already done. Tunisia’s tourist economy went the way of the dinosaurs.

You can book rooms at five-star resorts now for as little as 30 dollars, and the resorts are still mostly empty.

Tourism is one of Tunisia’s largest industries. At least it was before Rezgui had his way with the place.

Tunisia, though, is considerably more fragile than France. It will take a lot more than one man with a gun or a suicide vest to break the French tourism industry. France has been hit a couple of times this year already, and the recent attack was actually a series of coordinated attacks, but because they all took place at the same time, they look and feel like a single large one.

It was the same on 9/11 in the United States. Four separate airplanes were hijacked simultaneously. We had casualties in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. But the four attacks were basically a single event.  

Imagine how much more devastating it would have been if those four hijackings were spread out in time. Imagine if a commercial airliner had been crashed into a different city every week for a month. Or once a month for four months.

And imagine if ISIS decides to attack France that way in the future. Rather than targeting five or six civilian targets simultaneously, they could hit a new one every day for a week. Or a new one every week for a month.

That would cause some serious economic mayhem in France or anywhere else. ISIS might do to France what it did to Tunisia. I certainly don’t intend to give them any ideas by mentioning this in public, but figuring it out on their own is no more difficult than reinventing the wheel.

The current French approach—ramping up the air strikes by an iota or two—will have no effect on ISIS’ terrorist capabilities whatsoever.

Which is not to say that a stronger approach would necessarily do the job either. Not even a full-blown invasion followed by the total destruction of the “caliphate” in both Syria and Iraq would reduce the terrorist threat in France or anywhere else to zero.

But it could certainly make a difference.

The United States spent years fighting ISIS under its previous name in Iraq and suffered no casualties at home from the organization while doing so. ISIS—which was called Al Qaeda in Iraq back then—was far too busy trying to stay alive on its home turf. And it eventually lost in Iraq and existed basically nowhere until the Syrian civil war provided a “safe space” for it to regroup and rebuild.

You want to fight ISIS? Don’t permit it to have a safe space anywhere on this planet.

Why the War in Kurdistan Matters

John Robert Gallagher voluntarily moved from Calgary, Alberta, to Syrian Kurdistan to fight against ISIS alongside the People’s Protection Units.

A suicide bomber killed him last week.

On May 6 of this year he wrote an essay on his Facebook page explaining why he went over there. Canada’s National Post republished it last week with a disclaimer that some may find it objectionable, and I’m republishing also. His mother wants as many people to read it as possible.

Why the War in Kurdistan Matters

by John Robert Gallagher

First, let me get the obvious out of the way: I do not expect anyone to agree that it is a wise course of action to volunteer to fight against ISIS. Would-be terrorists from all over the world, including Canada, (including some I probably went to school with,) are flooding into the Middle East by the thousands. They’ve got the numbers and the weapons to win this war, so to go stand on the other side of the battlefield is objectively insane.

I also respect the viewpoint that the last thing any westerners ought to do is get involved in another Middle Eastern conflict. We’ve already done tremendous damage to the region; the rise of ISIS is a direct result of foreign policy blunders by the last two Presidents (at least!). If you think that for the good of the region we should all sit this one out, I can understand that. But I can’t agree.

The cause of a free and independent Kurdistan is important enough to be worth fighting for all on its own. The Kurdish people are the largest ethnicity in the world without a country of their own, and have suffered enormously under the boot-heel of regional powers. Now they are under threat from another genocidal foe, yet they have not given themselves over to the joint manias of religious fanaticism and suicide murder. This should be enough reason for the West to give them whatever support they need in such a time of crisis. But there is an even better reason.

For decades now, we have been at war. This war has been unacknowledged by our leaders, but enthusiastically proclaimed by our enemies. This war has produced casualties on every continent, in nearly every nation on earth. It has had periods of intense fighting, followed by long stretches of rearming and regrouping, but it has never ended. It is not even close to being won. Someday historians will look back and marvel at how much effort we put into deceiving ourselves about the nature of this conflict, and wonder how we convinced ourselves that it was not even taking place. This war may have started in 1979, or earlier; 2001 increased the intensity of the conflict; the withdrawal from Iraq kicked off the latest phase. Like the American Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War, this war is about ideas as much as it is about armies. Slavery, fascism, and communism were all bad ideas which required costly sacrifice before they were finally destroyed. In our time, we have a new bad idea: Theocracy.

We live in a society that’s grown around a very basic philosophical principle: That the world around us can be understood using our senses and our minds. From this simple insight comes the moral revelation that all human beings are equal in this capacity, and therefore equal in dignity. This radical idea was the turning point in human history, before which all civilizations had been dominated by the idea that class hierarchies and racism were perfectly justified according to the revealed wisdom of ancient texts, and sanctified by holy men with a special relationship to some ‘divine’ power. We began to see justice as something which could be measured by its effects on living people, not as superstition.

This idea has been under threat ever since its inception, because it’s the most powerful force for human emancipation that has ever been, and so it is a deadly threat to the privileged. It is also a threat to those who fear a world where human beings must be the judges of our own actions. Some prefer to subordinate their own morality to a doctrine they know they can never fully understand; this is more agreeable than facing the thought that we are alone in this world. This terror at our own freedom, and hatred for the mind that makes its realization inescapable, has given birth to movements that promise to give us back our comforting delusions. Communism and fascism were both answers to the problem of human freedom. These ideas were defeated. But always in the background the germ of these ideas was aggressively breeding. Theocracy isn’t just as dangerous as fascism; it’s the model of fascism, and all totalitarianisms. Communism said ‘instead of god, the Party.’ Fascism said, ‘instead of god, the Nation!’ Theocracy simply says ‘God.’

There is nothing uniquely Islamic about this trend, except that it just so happens that the most violent proponents of theocracy today happen to be Muslim. In the 1500’s, it was the Christians. By hard fighting and a brave defense of our principles, the forces of secularism managed to wrestle control of European society away from the theocrats, and we have been fighting the regressive movements that have tried to take their place ever since. The Muslim world has been dominated by theocratic politics for decades now, and that war has overflowed to engulf the rest of the world.

We are all on the front lines of this conflict, whether we know it or not. We can measure the causalities not only in the body counts of deadly terror attacks, ‘mass demonstrations,’ embassy assaults and assassinated artists; we can also measure it in the terror produced among cartoonists, satirists, publishers and booksellers, news media and educators who are being prevented from doing their necessary work of maintaining the machinery of the enlightenment. Not only have we all been threatened; in many ways we are all already casualties of this war.

The stance of pacifists and the appeasement left on this issue is not tolerance, but ironically, what it claims to oppose: fearmongering, and even ‘Islamophobia,’ since it betrays their utter terror of offending the sensibilities of immigrant communities and the so-called ‘community leaders’ who are presumed to give them their marching orders. Their pre-emptive apologism for barbarity betrays a deep contempt for the character of immigrant Muslims, since it presumes that they enjoy their mental oppression and prefer the moral stagnation of sharia law and the hadith to the pleasures of an open, cosmopolitan, secular society.

I have met plenty of self-described Muslims who have never even read the Qur’an, don’t care what it has to say about the role of women or the punishment for blasphemy, who don’t know or care how Muhammad treated prisoners of war, or how he dealt with dissenting poets in Mecca. That’s fine. I personally wish they would learn a bit about those last points and take more responsibility for the company they keep, but the point is that they are not an active part of the problem. Yet elements of our government are perfectly willing to accept that thuggishness is something we must automatically and un-judgmentally expect from Muslims, that it is US who must accommodate ourselves to THEM. What we need here is more historical education, not cultural sensitivity.

The war that is ongoing in the Middle East is a war against theocracy. In many ways it is a civil war, and I believe more depends on its outcome than anyone in power is prepared to face. But it is also a distant front in a civil war within Western society, since we are sending troops to fight on both sides. And here the stakes may be even greater. Our war is not just about theocracy; it is between those who still believe in the enlightenment, that self-determination is the most basic and most crucial of all human rights, that the first duty of every man in society is to defend the mechanisms by which we make ourselves free; and those who ultimately lack the capacity to believe in anything. These people have been corrupted by the masochistic fables circulated by leftists and identity politicians that tell us Western society is inherently racist, inherently sexist, and inherently imperialist, when it is Western society which pioneered the ideas that racism, sexism, and imperialism might be a problem in the first place.

Because of our beliefs, we live in the most racially inclusive, sexually liberated, and anti-imperialist society which has ever existed in human history, and to teach young people anything different is a criminal act of intellectual violence. And the crisis we face today is the direct result of this ‘progressive’ thinking: we are now under threat by those who take advantage of the masochism and apathy fostered by the left to recruit people who will take a violently affirmative ideology over nihilistic pessimism, even or especially if that means committing atrocities that would make the average ‘imperialist’ vomit. Those who contribute to this environment of moral decay and vulnerability are the useful idiots of jihad and fellow travelers of theocracy, and it is the duty of thinking persons to oppose their influence by every means at our disposal.

I was raised in a fundamentalist religious environment. If today I have any intellectual or spiritual existence worth fighting for, it is because it was impossible for the religious forces in my life to have their way and shield me from the assaults of reason and conscience. They could teach me that evolution was a lie, but they couldn’t prevent me from reading about it or prohibit the public schools from teaching it. They could tell me blasphemy was a sin, but they couldn’t prevent me from sneaking Monty Python and South Park. The mechanisms of society, in other words, gave me the tools by which I could make myself free. They saved my life. Who safeguards the social machinery now? Only an overbred political elite and intelligentsia who burble about the urgent need to never give offense. This is not only a disgraceful failure; it is a national emergency.

Like theocracy today, fascism used to be an international movement, with fascist parties in every western country. Then World War II happened. Nazi Germany became the standard-bearer of fascism, and when it was crushed, the movement wasn’t just destroyed, it was discredited for all time. Ironically, the rise of ISIS gives us the same chance now. We have the ability to eradicate jihadism in our lifetime. The terrorists’ own playbook sees the taking and holding of territory as a necessary step to discredit Western democracy and prove that the Caliphate is a real political possibility in the 21st century. We have to prove that it is not. And like we did with Nazi Germany, we must crush it with overwhelming, unrelenting force. We have to take it while the mass graves are still fresh, while there are still survivors to give testimony to the atrocities they’ve witnessed, while the murderers are still around to be put on trial. Only by destroying ISIS without mercy can we discredit the idea, and force the would-be jihadis and fellow-travelers to give up their insane dreams of a new Mecca and join the modern world.

I’m prepared to give my life in the cause of averting the disaster we are stumbling towards as a civilization. A free Kurdistan would be good enough cause for any internationalist, but we are fortunate enough to be able to risk our necks for something more important and more righteous than anything we’ve faced in generations. With some fortitude and guts, we can purge the sickness that’s poisoning our society, and come together to defeat this ultimate evil. I’ve been fighting this battle in one way or another for my entire life. I hope for success. The rest is in the hands of the gods.

Iran’s Bogus Posturing on Police Brutality

The Iranian government invited twenty American writers and activists to a conference against police brutality and racism last week. Keynote speaker Ahmad Salek vowed that Israel would be destroyed within 25 years and compared American police officers to ISIS.

The Iranian government hunts down gay people and hangs them from cranes. It sends the Basij militia into the streets to attack peaceful protesters with clubs, chains, knives and axes. It routinely and as a matter of policy tortures liberal activists and intellectuals in Evin Prison.

These people think black lives matter? Really?

And that American police officers are like ISIS? Really?

And the keynote speaker at a supposed anti-racism conference vows to destroy the world’s only Jewish state within a generation. Really?

This doesn’t even rise to the level of hypocrisy.

It’s the same kind of ludicrous nonsense that the Soviet Union pulled when it pretended to support the American civil rights movement in the 1960s.

It wasn’t easy for a totalitarian regime to promote itself as a defender of human rights. Moscow ruled a continent-spanning slave empire that murdered tens of millions of people. But that didn’t stop it from trying. The Kremlin wasn’t even remotely embarrassed by its own record—deliberately starving millions of Ukrainians to death, for example, or ethnically cleansing every single last Tatar from Crimea and deporting them to Uzbekistan. And let’s not forget the millions who perished in slave labor camps in Kolyma and Siberia.

A regime that brutal didn’t give a flying fork about segregated lunch counters and schools in Alabama. It couldn’t possibly. The whole thing was just a cynical ploy to appear on the right side of history in the eyes of people who had no idea what was going on in the world. 

Any kind of civil rights movement in the Soviet Union would have been ruthlessly smashed. Obviously. There would have been nothing left of it in no time at all. Most people would never even hear about it.

Here we are in 2015 and Iran is doing the exact same thing.

Partly the regime is hoping to sucker enough activists and writers in America to change public opinion here so Tehran has even more of a free hand internationally than it already has.

But most of its objectives are local. The government trotted these American activists out in front of school children and on television to tell Iranians how horrendous things supposedly are back home.

The activists meant well, I’m sure. They had no idea they were being used as tools in a propaganda scheme by a repressive and violent regime in precisely the same way North Korea recently exploited Dennis Rodman a few years ago.

Someone really ought to sit down and explain it to them.

What Just Happened in Syria?

Last week, after the White House announced its support for Syrian rebels was finished, the United States said it dropped 50 tons of ammunition from the air into Syria, ostensibly for unnamed Arab groups fighting ISIS. That, supposedly, was the last assistance those people were going to get.

A few days later, various anti-ISIS Syrian Arabs issued a collective, huh?

What happened to that ammo that supposedly fell out of the sky?

Nobody seemed to get any ammo.

All became clear the next day when Eli Lake and Josh Rogin reported in Bloomberg that, according to various officials, the aid was never intended for Syrian Arabs. That 50 tons of ammo actually went to the Kurds.

Turkey publicly summoned the US ambassador to complain.

“Turkey cannot accept any kind of cooperation with terror organizations that have declared war against Turkey,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.

That ammunition went to no kind of terrorist organization. It went to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the only half-way sane militia in all of Syria that’s capable of taking on ISIS and winning.

The YPG is allegedly linked to the quasi-Marxist Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, over the border in Turkey which is listed by the United States government, among others, as a terrorist organization. But the PKK and the YPG are different organizations. They have different goals, different ideas, different leaders, and different enemies. They aren’t even in the same country. And the extent of their linkage is hotly disputed.

The Pentagon later said that, no, that ammunition did in fact go to Syrian Arab fighters and that, to the best of its knowledge, none of it was shared with anyone else.

The officials who told Lake and Rogin that it went to the Kurds are anonymous sources. They spoke unofficially and off the record. But this isn’t a case of one person said “this” and another said “that.” Lake and Rogin have American, Kurdish and Syrian Arab sources who back up that claim.

The Pentagon is almost certainly lying so it won’t infuriate Turkey.

Look. Running guns and ammo under the radar to legitimate proxies in a fight against a terrorist army is entirely reasonable behavior on the part of the United States government. We’ve been doing that sort of thing for decades. Pretty much everyone else in the Middle East does it, too, but they almost always run guns and ammo to terrorist organizations rather than to groups fighting terrorist organizations.

Regardless, it’s high time we come out and say exactly what we’re doing and why. Everyone already knows we’re backing the Kurds against ISIS, and everyone already knows the Turks would rather see an ISIS victory than a Kurdish victory. None of this is even remotely a secret. It’s all right out in the open. Official denials aren’t fooling anybody.

Besides, pretending we’re not doing what we clearly are doing just makes it look like the Turkish government’s complaint is legitimate.

It’s not.

Turkey says arming Syrian Kurds is unacceptable. Well. You know what’s unacceptable from everyone else’s point of view? Telling the rest of the world that we all have to suffer the plague of ISIS because an independent Syrian Kurdistan is inconvenient to Turkey.

The Trouble with Turkey: Erdogan, ISIS, and the Kurds

My latest essay for the print edition of World Affairs is now online. Here’s the first half.

Turkey, a key member of NATO, has so far chosen to sit out the war against ISIS. Instead, it is at war with Kurdish militias in Syria, the only ground forces so far that have managed to take on ISIS and win. 

Turkey fears and loathes Kurdish independence anywhere in the world more than it fears and loathes anything else. Kurdish independence in Syria, from Ankara’s point of view, could at a minimum escalate a three-decades-long conflict and at worst threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity. 

Kurds make up between 15 and 25 percent of Turkey’s population, but no one knows for sure because the government outlaws ethnic classification. Most live in the southeast near the Syrian and Iraqi borders. Many would like to secede and form an independent state of their own.

They could conceivably do it with enough help from the outside. They have a model in the Kurds in Iraq, who liberated themselves from Saddam Hussein after the first Persian Gulf War and have been independent in all but name ever since. The civil war in Syria has allowed the Kurds there to carve out a space of their own between ISIS and the Assad regime, which is what worries the Turks. 

Turkey is a powerful state, but so was Saddam Hussein’s government. So was Bashar al-Assad’s before the rebellion broke out a few years ago.

ISIS is still the JV squad as far as Turkey is concerned, to use President Obama’s unfortunate formulation, but Kurdish armed forces have been trying to rip apart the country for decades and therefore Ankara has called in the varsity to deal with them.

*

Turkish nationalists insist everyone in their country is a Turk whether they like it and admit it or not. The Kurds, according to them, are not a separate people. Rather, they are “mountain Turks who lost their language.” But Turkish nationalism, like Arab nationalism, scarcely existed until the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, which expired at the end of World War I. And the truth is that Turkey, as the rump state of that multi-ethnic empire, is a mélange of different identities. With its Kurdish, Arab, Zaza, and Alevi minorities, it’s no more homogeneous than the rump state of the Soviet empire with the Tatars, Ingush, Sakha, Chechens, and other large numbers of non-Russian peoples on its periphery. 

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern republic in the ashes of World War I, Turkish nationalists attempted to unite everybody under a single identity for the sake of national unity and to prevent any more territorial loss, but the Kurds refused to join up because the Western powers had promised them a state of their own. To this day, they remain the largest stateless people on earth. Many feel far more kinship with their fellow Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria than with their nominal countrymen in Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire was loosely confederated, with a space for the Kurds, but modern Turkey was founded as a strong Western-style republic with a powerful center, and the Kurds were forcibly conquered, colonized, and integrated. 

The government’s response to Kurdish nationalism was tantamount to attempted cultural genocide. Ethnic Kurds were forcibly relocated from the eastern parts of the country, while European Turks were moved to the Kurdish region in the farthest reaches of Anatolia. Even speaking the Kurdish language was forbidden in schools, government offices, and in public places until 1991. Simply saying “I am a Kurd” in Kurdish was a crime, and it’s still considered scandalous in official settings. In 2009, a Kurdish politician created a huge controversy by speaking just a few words of Kurdish in the nation’s Parliament building.

Despite the fervor of this repression, Turkey’s problem with its Kurdish minority is more political than ethnic. As Erik Meyersson at the Stockholm School of Economics put it, “It is less an inherent dislike for Kurds that drives state repression of this minority than the state’s fear for the institutional consequences and loss of centralized power.”

Beginning in 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK—initially backed by the Soviet Union—has waged an on-again, off-again guerrilla and terrorist war against the Turkish state that has killed more than 45,000 people, according to government figures. That’s almost as many as Americans killed during the Vietnam War. 

Most of the dead are Kurdish. The Turkish military dished out unspeakable punishment in the east of the country. Nine years ago, I drove from Istanbul to northern Iraq and was shocked to discover that Iraqi Kurdistan is a vastly more prosperous and pleasant place than bombed-out and repressed Turkish Kurdistan. Turkey was once seen as a semi-plausible candidate for the European Union, yet the Kurdish parts of Iraq—one of the most dysfunctional and broken countries on earth—were and are doing much better than the Kurdish region of Turkey.

From mid-2013 to mid-2015, the Turkish state and the PKK enjoyed a period of relative calm under a cease-fire, but in late July the army bombed PKK positions in northern Iraq, and the PKK in Turkey declared the cease-fire void. A wave of attacks against police stations swept over the country in August. An enduring peace between the two sides now seems as elusive as ever. 

The Turkish establishment has been alarmed by the existence of an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq since the day it was founded and has repeatedly threatened to invade if it declares independence from Baghdad. (That may be the only reason the Iraqi Kurds haven’t yet done it.) And it’s doubly alarmed now that the Kurds of Syria have cobbled together their own autonomous region, which they call Rojava, while the Arabs of Syria fight a devastating civil war with each other. And the Turkish establishment is triply alarmed because the Kurdish militias in Syria—the YPG, or People’s Protection Units—are aligned with the PKK. 

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—like most of his ethnic Turkish countrymen—is terrified that an independent Syrian Kurdistan will help Turkish Kurdistan wage a revolutionary war against Ankara. Fairly or not, Erdogan sees Rojava much the way the Israelis see Hezbollah-occupied southern Lebanon. 

Ideally the Syrian Kurds wouldn’t side with the PKK. The PKK has committed crimes in Turkey and is a willing belligerent in a long and terrible war. The Turks are not imagining this or making it up, and there is no shortage of Kurds elsewhere in the region who share Erdogan’s dim view of the PKK and its allies.

“They are very fanatic in their nationalism,” Abdullah Mohtadi told me in Iraqi Kurdistan years ago. He’s the head of the Komala Party, a formerly Communist left-liberal Iranian Kurdish group living in exile in Iraq. “They are very undemocratic in nature. They have no principles, no friendship, no contracts, no values. In the name of the Kurdish movement, they eliminate everybody.”

The United States, though, is backing the Syrian Kurds. We have to. They’re the only ground force capable of fighting ISIS and winning. The only other options in Syria are the repulsive Assad regime, Hezbollah, Sunni Islamists that will inevitably turn on the United States, the al-Qaeda–linked Nusra Front, and a handful of relatively moderate but irrelevant Sunni groups that have already effectively lost. 

The Kurds are all that’s left. 

And the Kurds are the most pro-American people in the entire Middle East. They’re more pro-American than the Israelis. Ideologically, yes, the PKK-aligned groups are a bit iffy. They were once Soviet proxies and they’re at war with a member of NATO. But the Turks share at least half of the blame for that conflict. Nowhere in the region will Kurdish people accept cultural genocide lying down. Surely they would have accepted help from the United States had it been offered during the Cold War, but it wasn’t, so they took largesse and ideology from the Russians instead. 

For what it’s worth, though, the PKK is not what it used to be. The Soviet Union is dead, and a lot of the ideological Marxism its leaders once mouthed has been diluted over time to standard-issue leftism with a culturally conservative twist. The Kurds of Turkey and Syria are not struggling for the collectivization of agriculture. They are not interested in liquidating landlords or “the kulaks.” They certainly aren’t interested in imposing a police state in Ankara. First and foremost, they’re fighting against the fascists of ISIS, and second for Kurdish independence, a secular system of government, and equality between men and women. They detest the Islamic religion as much as far-right “Islamophobes” in America. Compared with just about everyone else in the region, they’re liberals. 

Not in any alternate universe would the United States oppose these people right now. The Kurds of Iran and Iraq are more politically palatable, but you fight a proxy war with the proxies you have, and Americans will never find a better proxy in Syria against ISIS than the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.

 Read the whole thing.

Obama Dumps Syria's Rebels

The White House has officially scrapped its policy of training Syrian rebels now that Vladimir Putin is killing them.

Normally we might call this a surrender, but at this point, abandoning the rebel training would be the right call even if Vladimir Putin decided to help us instead of obstruct us.

Three years ago I wrote in this magazine that it was in America’s interests to see Bashar al-Assad overthrown.

The Arab Socialist Baath Party regime, beginning with its founder Hafez al-Assad and continuing through the rule of his son Bashar, is the deadliest state sponsor of terrorism in the Arab Middle East. It assisted the bloodthirsty insurgency in Iraq that killed American soldiers by the thousands and murdered Iraqi civilians by the tens of thousands. It has used both terrorism and conventional military power to place Lebanon under its boot since the mid-1970s. It made Syria into the logistics hub for Hezbollah, the best-equipped and most lethal non-state armed force in the world. It has waged a terrorist war against Israel and the peace process for decades, not only from Lebanon, but also from the West Bank and Gaza. And it is Iran’s sole Arab ally and its bridge to the Mediterranean.

That was in the early days of this conflict. Before ISIS took over a huge swath of the country. When the Free Syrian Army could have been molded into at least a semi-moderate force.

Arming and training a rebel army to fight the Assad regime and Hezbollah would have been extremely risky, obviously. It could have gone wrong in any number of ways.

But ISIS, the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and other Islamist totalitarians are so thick on the ground now that arming and training a rebel army is not even risky. It’s guaranteed to fail or blow back in our faces. Our brief opportunity to maybe stave off a local apocalypse is long past.

The battlefield in Syria has already been shaped, and there is no longer any room for even a semi-moderate force outside the Kurdish region.

Nearly all the political moderates in Syria have fled the country or are hiding under their beds. The US can have no leverage in the Arab parts of the country. All we can do at this point is back the Kurds.

In case there was any doubt left, Putin made it absolutely clear yesterday that Russia is intervening strictly in order to bolster Assad’s regime, which puts him clearly on side with the Iranian-Hezbollah axis.

Maybe he’ll get rid of ISIS while he’s at it, but so far that isn’t his plan. ISIS and Assad for the most part haven’t been fighting each other anyway—they’re both too busy fighting everyone else. Which all but guarantees that everyone else, with the possible exception of the Kurds, is going to lose.

Donald Trump Can’t Get the Middle East Right

Over the span of just over a week, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has changed his position on Syria twice and even reversed himself once, but he still can’t find the right answer.

On Meet the Press over the weekend, he said he thinks the Middle East would be better off if Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi were still in charge of Iraq and Libya, and that Syria will be better off if Bashar al-Assad remains in power for the same reason.

“You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there — it's a mess — if you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there — it's a mess — it's [Syria] going to be same thing.”

He acknowledges, though, that Assad is “probably a bad guy.”

He uses the word “probably” because he doesn’t actually know. He’s just guessing. Winging it. 

The Assad family has been the chief villain of the Eastern Mediterranean for decades, but Trump isn’t sure because he’s spent most of that time working in real estate. Which is fine—my parents spent their careers in real estate, too—but it doesn’t exactly prepare a person for dealing with the likes of Assad and ISIS.

At least he guessed right. Syria has used terrorist armies to attack every single one of its neighbors, including Turkey and Jordan, but especially Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq. Assad is Iran’s staunchest ally in the world, a co-sponsor of Hezbollah, supporter of Palestinian terrorist organizations, and one of the original backers of ISIS when it was slaughtering Americans in Iraq under its previous name.

Assad’s government is the most destructive and pernicious in the Arab world.

Yeah, he’s “probably” a bad guy.

Chaos may follow the removal of the likes of Saddam Hussein, Moammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, but they are not forces for stability in the Middle East and never have been. You want a force for stability? Try the king of Morocco. He’s a force for stability. So is the sultan of Oman. Oman is so stable that most people don’t even know where it is. (It’s on the Arabian Peninsula next to Yemen.) King Abdullah of Jordan is also a force for stability.

None of these guys were elected, but we’d be out of our minds to want them removed.

But Bashar al-Assad, like Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi, is a state sponsor of terrorism. All three brutally subjugated their citizens and poisoned the minds of the survivors with a vicious anti-Western ideology.

The day we decide that hostile state sponsors of terrorism are reliable firewalls against terrorists is the day we give up.

A week earlier, Trump seemed to have a clearer idea that Assad was a bad guy, but he thought it might be a good idea if we let ISIS take him out.

“We go in to fight ISIS,” he said. “Why aren't we letting ISIS go and fight Assad and then we pick up the remnants? Why are we doing this?”

He sounds like a random guy in a bar who’s thinking out loud after reading a couple of newspaper articles that are fuzzy on the details. We all run into people like that once a while, people who don’t really know anything about the Middle East but think they’ve got it all figured out anyway.  

He realizes it’s hard, though, and figures, hey, let the Russians deal with it instead.

“Russia wants to get rid of ISIS,” he said. “We want to get rid of ISIS. Maybe let Russia do it. Let 'em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?”

Here’s why we should care: The most powerful hostile bloc in the Middle East is the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. That faction has been murdering Americans for decades, long before Al Qaeda and ISIS even existed. Now that Vladimir Putin is aggressively on side with Assad, we’re dealing with the Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. It’s like the Cold War all over again in the Middle East, except that it’s hot.

Russia isn’t interested in defeating ISIS anyway. Neither is Assad. Moscow and Damascus are fighting the other anti-Assad factions—the Nusra Front, what’s left of the Free Syrian Army, and the largely useless factions backed by the United States.

It is a quagmire, though, so it’s not hard to see why Trump would rather see Russians get sucked into it than Americans. Phrased that way, it’s a no-brainer. But the Middle East is a lot more complicated than figuring out which foreign power should get bruised and bloodied trying to deal with it. 

When looking at ISIS and Assad, a lot of us echo Henry Kissinger on the Iran-Iraq war—it’s too bad they can’t both lose. But the operative word in that sentence is can’t.

ISIS and Assad are not both going to lose. They are not going to cancel each other out. Wars don’t turn out that way. They end with a victor or in a stalemate. ISIS and Assad aren’t really fighting each other anyway. They’re both fighting the other armed factions and consolidating their respective territories.

We can argue all day about which side we’d rather see lose, but we’re heading toward the worst-case scenario, where Assad and ISIS both win. The nation once known as Syria is already de-facto divided in half. Iran and Hezbollah may keep their rump state on the Mediterranean now that Russia is backing Assad, while ISIS remains secure out in the desert.

Someone should ask Trump—and President Barack Obama, too, while we’re at it—what the US should do about that. 

The Iraq of Latin America

Mexico is more like Iraq than any other country in the Western Hemisphere with the possible exception of Haiti. A bewilderingly multifaceted armed conflict has been raging since 2007 between more than a dozen militarized drug cartels, the federal government and a smorgasbord of citizen’s militias.

The Mexican mafia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Soviet Proxy during the Cold War that remains on the list of international terrorist organizations, back some of the cartels, and according to the Tucson Police Department, even Hezbollah has gotten involved.

The cartels are bribing and corrupting so many government officials that the state fights them only occasionally and only in certain places, leaving citizens at the mercy of murderous criminal enterprises that don’t flinch at even ISIS levels of brutality.

A few years ago, for instance, goons from one of the cartels in the resort city of Acapulco demanded elementary school teachers cough up fifty percent of their salaries or the schools would be attacked. They left a sack of five severed heads out front on the sidewalk to show they weren’t screwing around.

The Mexican Drug War has killed more than 100,000 people in the last eight years. Think about that. That’s twice as many as the number of American killed during the Vietnam War. The conflict even occasionally spills over the border into the United States.

No one could cover all this in a single article or even a feature-length film. In a book, perhaps, but it would be as mind-bogglingly complex as Jason Stearn’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters about the impossibly tortured great war in the Congo.

Matthew Heineman covers a piece of it, though, in his searing new documentary Cartel Land, produced by Katherine Bigelow of Zero Dark Thirty fame. He embeds with militia leaders in both Mexico and the United States—Dr. Jose Mireles in the state of Michoacan, and Tim Foley in Arizona—and follows them on patrol and into battle.

Dr. Mireles leads the local Grupo de Autodefensa, a citizen’s militia that rose up to fight the Knight’s Templar cartel, a ghastly mafia/terrorist hybrid, after it took over the small city of Tepalcatepec an hour or so south of Guadalajara.

“What would you do?” Dr. Mireles says when asked why a medical doctor is moonlighting as a militia commander. “Wait for when they come to you? Or defend yourself?”

Heineman even manages to interview some of the cartel members. “We are the meth cooks,” a masked man says on screen. “We know we do harm. But what are we going to do? We come from poverty.”

Foley, meanwhile, leads the Arizona Border Recon, a vigilante group that hunts drug smugglers and human traffickers on the American side of the border. “It’s the cartels,” he says on the safer side of the line in America. “They’re the ones terrorizing their own country, and now they’re starting to do it over here.”

Cartel Land is a mostly political tale in America’s back yard punctuated with heart-stopping scenes of battle we associate more with war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq than where millions of us like to go on vacation. Most of it focuses on Michoacan’s autodefensas, a militia movement that starts out surprisingly civic-minded considering the fact that it’s…a militia. “When the government can’t provide basic security for its people,” Dr. Mireles says, “we take up arms.”

The story on the American side is, by contrast, a bit on the dull side. Heineman seems to know it, too, so most of the screen time is down there in Mexico. The American “militia” isn’t really even a militia, at least not in the Mexican sense of the word, and certainly not in the Iraqi sense of the word. The only thing Foley’s crew really has in common with Mireles’ autodefensas is that the drug cartels are the enemy.

The Arizona Border Recon is filling an American Border Patrol gap rather than liberating conquered cities. They’re not fighting pitched battles. They’re just wandering around in the no-man’s land of the desert and making occasional citizen’s arrests.

Dr. José Mireles, on the other hand, actually liberates cities. That’s how bad it is in some parts of Mexico. The government sits on its ass while entire cities need to be liberated from armies of killers.

The first time we see the Mexican government, the army rolls into town and disarms not the cartel members but the citizen autodefensas. Furious residents chase the army away and ensure the militia gets its guns back.

In another town, though, the autodefensas are met with an icy chill. A huge throng of concerned citizens gathers in the town square and insists that the state should have a monopoly on the use of force, that unaccountable militiamen could all too easily become the very monsters they’re fighting against.

It’s an interesting moment, and it’s initially not obvious who we should side with. So many state officials have been bought off by cartel money that the government won’t do its job. The government at times even facilitates the cartels. The concerned citizens are surely right on general principle, but Mexico is a place where foxes guard the henhouse. What are regular people supposed to do? Just sit there and take it?

The autodefensas, however, lose their moral authority over time. Dr. José Mireles is shoved aside by his bodyguard, a fat man with a beard known as “Papa Smurf,” who lacks Mireles’ civic-minded decency. “We can’t become the criminals we are fighting against,” Dr. Mireles warns Papa Smurf, but to no avail. Under new leadership, the autodefensas begin running roughshod over people.

Papa Smurf initially hated the cartels for the same reasons as everyone else, but he likes power a little too much. It’s an old story. It predates even antiquity.

Mireles flees and Papa Smurf agrees to transform the autodefensas into a deputized wing of the state security apparatus. That’s exactly what should have happened, in theory. In a better world, in a better Mexico, militias would be either disarmed or integrated into the government. The state really does need a monopoly on the use of force. We’ve all seen what happens in countries elsewhere in the world—Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo—where military power is dispersed among various factions.

There’s a moment of hope, then, when the autodefensas become part of the government The problem is that nothing else changes beforehand. The state is as corrupted by cartel money as ever. And now the autodefensas—led by a Papa Smurf drunk on his own newfound power—have become a part of that corrupt state.

Cartel Land ends on a note that’s positively Middle Eastern in its bleakness. The cartel-government hybrid swallows the citizens’ movement as if it’s the Borg. The deputized autodefensas are now working with rather than against the cartels while Dr. Mireles languishes in prison on weapons charges.

It’s clear as glass by the end that Mexico is no more prepared to emerge from its quagmire of crookedness, crime, armed conflict and poverty than it was when I was a kid. Yet somehow, despite it all, the enormous tourism industry is still flourishing.

You can still go down there on holiday if you want, but don’t watch Cartel Land on the plane, and don’t take the kids.

The Clarion Call of ISIS

British Muslims are losing the war against ISIS. So says Sunny Hundal in a new essay in Quartz magazine.

“For the vast majority of Muslims who disdain its ideology,” he writes, “the challenge that [ISIS] presents to them is deadlier and far more difficult because they are caught in a pincer movement: with public and government suspicion on one side, and a seductive and supposedly empowering ideology on the other.”

According to the FBI, around 200 American Muslims have left the United States to join ISIS. And according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 600-700 British Muslims have left the United Kingdom just this year alone. The grand total of British Muslims running off to join ISIS is well over 1,000.

Compared to just 200 Americans.

The number of Muslims in each country is almost identical at roughly 2.7 million apiece. So British Muslims at least five times more likely to join ISIS than American Muslims.

Why? For at least three reasons. As Hundal notes, two ideas have been bouncing around in the British Muslim community for years—that Muslims should travel abroad to defend their fellow Muslims when necessary and to strive for a caliphate—an Islamic government—if and whenever possible.

American Muslims don’t find these ideas quite so compelling, and I suspect that’s for reason number three: The United States is a nation of immigrants. A foreign-born person can become American in a way that he or she simply can’t become English or Scottish or Welsh or French or German or anything else except maybe Canadian. National identities in the United States and Canada are based far less on ethnicity and religion than in the old world, where national identities have much longer histories that stretch back hundreds and sometimes even thousands of years.

Assimilating into mainstream American culture isn’t easy, but there’s a well-worn path trod by nearly every family in this country. The process itself is part of our identity.

Both British and American Muslims are more likely to join ISIS than Al Qaeda. Which isn’t the least bit surprising. Al Qaeda does nothing but kill people. Its record is naught but destruction.

But ISIS has actually built something. It’s appalling, of course. The Islamic state is a blood-soaked totalitarian prison. But so was the Soviet Union, and it, too, inspired huge numbers of people all over the world to take up arms and violently create knock-offs, from Cuba and Vietnam to South Yemen and even Somalia and Ethiopia.

We should never underestimate the appeal of a utopian fantasy in the human psyche even if it is drenched in blood.

Some people who find these utopias stirring deny that they’re drenched in blood. Others make excuses. (You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.) Still others are attracted to these ideas and places because they’re drenched in blood. Jihadi John, the Kuwait-British man who beheaded a string of jumpsuit-clad journalists and aid workers on camera, is clearly some kind of psychopath. So are the ISIS fighters who serially rape their captured “war brides.” So is Lisa Borch, the 15-year old Danish girl who fell in love with an Islamist extremist and stabbed her mother to death with a kitchen knife.

There’s an upside to the exodus, I suppose. Britain and the United States are better off without these people. If they didn’t run off to Syria, they’d be living down the street. We’d have fewer Jihadi Johns and more Lisa Borchs.

Syria sure as hell isn’t better off with these people as “immigrants,” but they’ll eventually die there when the Islamic State, like every other monstrous utopian entity, either destroys itself from within or is destroyed from without by fed-up outsiders.

When it finally happens, whether it’s next year or two decades from now, the British and American Muslim communities will be, on average, a little more politically moderate and sane than they are now. 

Russia Moves Into Syria

Russia is shipping massive quantities of offensive weapons, materiel and soldiers to Syria.

The massive Condor flights carrying all kinds of supplies now arrive twice a day through Iran and Iraq into Bassel Al-Assad International Airport outside the port city of Latakia. The cargo is for Russian soldiers, not Syrian government forces, but is seen as a build-up to aid Bashar Assad's embattled regime. 

The defense official, briefed on the latest satellite photos of the Syrian coastline, said: "This is the largest deployment of Russian forces outside the former Soviet Union since the collapse of the USSR." 

The only thing surprising about this is that it took so long.  

Syria has been a Russian client state since the 1970s. The reason for its original alliance with Soviet Russia is obvious enough. The Arab Socialist Baath Party was a natural ally of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Syria’s take on secularism and socialism isn't as severe as Soviet Russia’s, but Syria was ideologically much closer to Russia than to, say, Sweden. That was for damn sure.

And Russia wanted proxies and influence wherever it could get them even if the ideological overlap was just partial. It still does. All great powers and aspiring great powers and used-to-be great powers are interested in proxies and influence wherever they can get them.

Russia has what is sometimes referred to as its only Mediterranean naval base in Syria’s medium-sized city of Tartus, but it’s not much more than a gas station and repair shop. Russia’s big warships won’t even fit there. It’s not particularly important. What matters far more to Russia is its influence in the world, which is still drastically down from the great and terrible days of the Soviet Union.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, of course, wants all the help he can get at this late date. He has been getting it from Iran and Hezbollah all along, and from Russia at least diplomatically. He’d certainly take help from the United States at this point. He wanted help from the United States at the very beginning. That’s why he characterized the upheaval in Syria as a war against terrorism long before a single ISIS or Nusra fighter fired a shot, back when it was just him against unarmed protesters demanding some kind of political reform.

Assad might even take help from the Israelis at this point. Not that the Israelis would lift a finger to assist Hezbollah’s co-patron and co-armorer. That won’t happen under any circumstances.

So here comes daddy Russia, riding to the rescue of its old totalitarian client.

Maybe the Russians will go ahead and smash ISIS. Maybe they’ll do the dirty work that has the West so fatigued. Maybe they’ll do everybody a favor.

The result won’t be pretty, however. Soviet Russia did everybody a favor when it smashed through the eastern front of Hitler’s Nazi regime, but Poland sure paid the price. As did a lot of other countries in Europe.

The Wall Street Journal isn’t happy about this at all.

For 70 years American Presidents from both parties have sought to thwart Russian influence in the Middle East. Harry Truman forced the Red Army to withdraw from northern Iran in 1946. Richard Nixon raised a nuclear alert to deter Moscow from resupplying its Arab clients during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Even Jimmy Carter threatened military force to protect the Persian Gulf after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

America wasn’t quite as burned out then.

We’re all tired of trying to fix a part of the world that refused to be fixed, but nature abhors a vacuum.

Beirut Chokes on Its Own Filth

Since the time of antiquity, almost every place in the Middle East has suffered from way too much government, but Lebanon is an intriguing exception. It’s the one country in the region that doesn’t have nearly enough.

Its government is so weak and dysfunctional that it can no longer carry out the most basic functions. Months have now passed since municipal workers have removed trash from garbage cans and dumpsters in Beirut. Mountains of garbage the size of buildings are piled up everywhere. The city—which looks like a fascinating and sometimes beautiful hybrid of Miami, Paris, Baghdad, and Tel Aviv—reeks like the worst slum in the world.

Surely by now the place is a biohazard.

Anti-government protestors and even rioters have taken to the streets with the message, “You Stink.” People from every political sect and every conceivable political party from the communists and Hezbollah to right-wing Christians and anti-sectarian liberals have banded together to demand the government take out the garbage—not just the trash on the streets, but the entire political class.

Anti-government riots are generally the result of real or perceived political repression, but the Lebanese are rebelling against a vacuum.

Lebanon was purposely designed to have weak state, not so much because the Lebanese are naturally libertarian (though many of them are, in their own Levantine way) but because the country is too diverse to cohere around a central leadership. It’s divided more or less equally between Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Christians. A smaller Druze minority makes things even more interesting and complicated.

Each of Lebanon’s three principle religious communities have different social and political values, and a weak central government allows each some measure of self-determination in its local and social affairs. A weak central state also prevents one sect from riding roughshod over the others. That’s the theory anyway. If one sect tries to seize total control, war is inevitable.

And so, for the most part, nobody tries. Not even Hezbollah has attempted to impose its rule over the entire country like its patron regime in Iran. Any attempt to Iranianize the whole society would be met with ferocious bloody resistance from just about everyone. Hezbollah knows this. So Hezbollah does not even bother. Despite Hezbollah’s fanaticism, most of Beirut remains as decadent and freewheeling as Amsterdam.

So the system works, sort of. It has so far prevented Lebanon from being taken over by someone like Saddam Hussein or Moammar Qaddafi. Syria’s Assad family ruled there for a while, but only because the Syrian army conquered the place with overwhelming force from the outside. Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party—created and maintained by Syria’s Alawite religious minority—is from somewhere else. It was an invasive species, an alien transplant, and in 2005 the Lebanese vomited it out.

So Lebanon figured out a way to free itself from the despotism endemic to the rest of the region. Hooray for the weak state. But the state is so weak that the capital is now drowning in its own filth.

How much government is just the right amount? We all have opinions, but nobody really knows. It goes without saying that Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union had far too much government while Somalia, with its bloody anarchy, has the opposite problem.

What about countries closer to the center? The United States or Canada? The United Kingdom or The Netherlands?

The Middle East’s options are more extreme. Would you rather live amidst Lebanon’s mild anarchy or Jordan’s moderate authoritarianism? Jordan isn’t experiencing much trouble with garbage collection these days, but the Jordanians can’t vote for or against the king, and there isn’t much in the way of freedom of speech.

It’s a bit of a quandary, isn’t it? “Even Syrians fleeing war pronounce themselves shocked at the lack of infrastructure in Lebanon,” Anne Barnard writes in The New York Times. “Some of them, however, express a hint of jealousy that Lebanon’s weak state allows freedoms unavailable in Syria, where protests were crushed with deadly force.”

Lebanon is obviously a better place than Syria right now despite all its problems. No one would flee the Beirut garbage dump for the killing fields of Aleppo. Lebanon, at least, isn’t a war zone. The government isn’t dropping barrel bombs on residential neighborhood, and there’s no genocidal terrorist army forcing children to execute its enemies.

But the World Economic Forum ranks Lebanon’s government as the fourth-least efficient in the entire world.

There are some advantages to that. You can live more or less like a free human being there. I know because I did it myself in 2005 and 2006. Peter Grimsditch, a British transplant who used to run Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, once told me that he’d never been anywhere in the world where he felt the power of the state bearing down on him less.

There are some serious disadvantages, though, too.

There’s the trash problem, of course.

And the fact that an Iranian-sponsored militia—Hezbollah—has managed to amass more military capacity than the national army.

And here’s a fun fact: Lebanon hasn’t had a president for more than a year. Imagine a chronically authoritarian place like Egypt having that problem.

And imagine if Barack Obama were followed in office by…nobody. Not Hillary Clinton. Not Jeb Bush. Not Donald Trump. Not Bernie Sanders.

Nobody.

The idea is actually appealing in some ways. Americans could probably muddle through for years with a ghost Oval Office.

But imagine if that also meant no new power plants for the next 30 years. No road repairs. No functioning water system. No trash collection. Militias rising up everywhere that start wars with Canada and Mexico.

The country might yearn for some kind of dictator after putting up with that kind of dysfunction for too many years.

Will that happen in Lebanon? I doubt it. The Lebanese wouldn’t be able to agree on which kind of dictator they’d tolerate anyway. But honestly I have no idea. It’s a strange place. There’s nowhere else in the world—certainly nowhere else in the Middle East—quite like it.

For Lebanon to resolve the root cause of most of its problems, Lebanon will have to stop being Lebanon. But that’s not going to happen any more than Syria will stop being Syria or Iraq will stop being Iraq.

ISIS Wages Cultural Genocide in Palmyra

They finally did it. The bastards destroyed Palmyra’s Temple of Bel.

We all knew it was coming in May when ISIS conquered the ancient Roman-era city an hour’s drive east of the Syrian city of Homs.

At first nothing happened. They promised they’d leave Palmyra alone, that they wouldn’t lay waste to its offensive pre-Islamicness the way they wrecked the Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud. 

I almost wrote that I was wrong after I predicted Palmyra’s destruction in City Journal, but then I thought, no, this is ISIS we’re talking about. Of course they’re going blow up the city. They’re just waiting for short attention-spanned Westerners to stop paying attention.

The West is not going to ride to the rescue. Neither will anyone else. (Well, maybe the Kurds will. They’re among the very best people in the Middle East. For so many reasons.)

But the impulse is there, isn’t it? At least a little bit? Who can witness this sort of thing and just shrug it off? Human life is more important than buildings, of course, but the Temple of Bel is not “just a building.” It isn’t a gas station. It isn’t a Wal-mart. It belongs to the heritage of mankind. Even Bashar al-Assad’s gangster regime is genuinely shocked and appalled. 

In March of 2001, the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddha statues at Bamiyan. They used dynamite. They used anti-aircraft guns. It took them weeks of dedicated effort, but they finally got the job done.

They destroyed those statues for one reason only: they were not Islamic.

One of my best friends was so aghast he told me that the United States should invade Afghanistan. I said he was nuts. We’re not going to invade a country on the other side of the planet because some primitive yahoos blew up some statues. And I was right. We did not invade of Afghanistan because some primitive yahoos blew up some statutes.

But I’ll never forget what he said next.

People who commit cultural genocide will mass-murder humans. War is inevitable.

Six months later, the United States invaded Afghanistan after the most devastating attack on American soil in history.

I was right. But so was he. 

The Taliban’s cultural genocide was just a prelude to what would come later.

Three months later, Paul Berman wrote “Terror and Liberalism,” one the most brilliant essays of his career which he later expanded into an even more brilliant book, comparing Al Qaeda’s ideology to Nazism, Communism, and General Franco’s fascism in Spain. The details of the ideologies are all strikingly different, of course, but they’re all just different flavors of modern totalitarianism with identical baseline characteristics.

The shared ideas were these: There exists a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy a sound and healthy society. But society's health has been undermined by a hideous infestation from within, something diabolical, which is aided by external agents from elsewhere in the world. The diabolical infestation must be rooted out. Rooting it out will require bloody internal struggles, capped by gigantic massacres. It will require an all-out war against the foreign allies of the inner infestation--an apocalyptic war, perhaps even Apocalyptic with a capital A. (The Book of the Apocalypse, as André Glucksmann has pointed out, does seem to have played a remote inspirational role in generating these twentieth-century doctrines.) But when the inner infestation has at last been rooted out and the external foe has been defeated, the people of good shall enjoy a new society purged of alien elements--a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single, blocklike structure, solid and eternal.

Each of the twentieth-century antiliberal movements expressed this idea in its own idiosyncratic way. The people of good were described as the Aryans, the proletarians, or the people of Christ. The diabolical infestation was described as the Jews, the bourgeoisie, the kulaks, or the Masons. The bloody internal battle to root out the infestation was described as the "final solution," the "final struggle," or the "Crusade." The impending new society was sometimes pictured as a return to the ancient past and sometimes as a leap into the sci-fi future. It was the Third Reich, the New Rome, communism, the Reign of Christ the King. But the blocklike characteristics of that new society were always the same. And with those ideas firmly in place, each of the antiliberal movements marched into battle.

And each of those totalitarian movements started unspeakable wars that killed millions upon millions of people.

Here we are again, a decade and a half later, and ISIS—Al Qaeda 2.0—is doing in Syria what the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

At the moment, the West would likely tolerate ISIS going full Pol Pot and genociding Syria off the map for a while, but these people are inevitably going to screw with us.

We’re not going to invade Syria to save some old buildings even if they are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but just like in 2001, at some point down the line, war is inevitable.

How to Destroy a City in Five Minutes

You don’t need a weapon of mass destruction to ruin a city.

Well, maybe sometimes you do. You’re not getting rid of New York City without one. But some of the world’s cities are so vulnerable, so precariously perched above an abyss, that a single bloodthirsty nutjob with a rifle can bring it to its knees in a matter of minutes.

Look at Tunisia’s resort city of Sousse on the Mediterranean. Two months ago, an ISIS-inspired nutcase named Seifeddine Rezgui strolled up the beach with a Kalashnikov in his hand and murdered 38 people, most of them tourists from Britain.

The police shot him, of course. There was never going to be any other ending than that one. And before the police arrived, local Tunisians formed a protective human shield around Rezgui’s would-be foreign victims. “Kill us! Kill us, not these people!” shouted Mohamed Amine. According to survivor John Yeoman, hotel staff members charged the gunman and said, “We won’t let you through. You’ll have to go through us.”

Tunisia’s hospitality and customer service are deservedly legendary, but that was truly above and beyond. It’s how Tunisia rolls, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Tourists are not going back.

A few still wander around here and there, but the locals are calling them ghosts. Who else lives in a ghost town but ghosts?

Hotels are laying off workers. Shops are empty and many will have to be closed. The city is reeling with feelings of guilt and anxiety. Guilt because one of their own murdered guests, the gravest possible offense against the ancient Arab code of hospitality, and anxiety because—what now? How will the city survive? How will all the laid-off workers earn a living with their industry on its back? Sousse without tourists is like Hollywood without movies and Detroit without automobile manufacturing.

Even Tunisia’s agriculture economy is crashing. Prices are down by 35 percent because the resorts don’t need to feed tourists anymore.

Rezgui’s ghoulish attack was spectacularly successful, wasn’t it? A single act of violence and—boom. Just like that, it’s all over.

Tunisians can still hang out in Sousse when they have some leisure time, but why should foreigners go there on holiday when they can go to Morocco instead? And if a couple of freakjobs shoot a bunch of tourists in Morocco, that country, too, could go into a tailspin. Why go there for a Mediterranean holiday when you could go to Spain, Malta, Corsica, or Croatia? Europeans who want to go farther afield can fly down to Key West, the Azores, or Bermuda. 

When it’s stable, Tunisia is a wonderful place for Westerners. The southern half of the country is quintessentially North African while the coast is startlingly European. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say the coast is Mediterranean. With a few exceptions (Gaza, Libya, and to a lesser extent Egypt), the European and Africans sides of the Mediterranean are two halves of a coherent whole. 

Only when you move inland and away from the sea do the unique characteristics of each nation-state fully assert themselves. Coastal Morocco is a lot like Spain, partly because southern Spain is a lot like Morocco. Beirut is an Arabic-speaking version of Tel Aviv. Istanbul is a Greek city inhabited by Turks while Athens is an Ottoman city where Greeks dwell. Coastal Tunisia feels like an Arabic-speaking province of France without the clash between natives and immigrants.

A French person who holidays in Sousse will feel as eerily at home as a Californian in Cabo San Lucas.

There’s a lot to love about Sousse. It’s an Arab city to emulate. If only Egyptians and Saudis and Iraqis could see this place, I thought to myself when I first got there, they’d see what’s possible in their own countries.

And that’s precisely why the likes of ISIS want to destroy it. ISIS isn’t gunning for Mecca. It is not targeting the Taliban-ruled parts of Afghanistan. It wants to swallow as much as it can, of course, but it can’t tolerate anything in the Muslim world that reminds people like me of a decadent infidel nation like France.

*

Thousands of Tunisians have run off to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Tunisians are, in fact, overrepresented in ISIS’s ranks.

Don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not because ISIS is popular in Tunisia. It’s not because Tunisians are more Islamist than people everywhere else. The democratically-elected government is composed of a staunchly secular coalition that spans the political spectrum from the socialist left to the moderate right.

Tunisia is the one Arab Spring success story. There is no chance it will voluntarily transform itself into anything resembling a Taliban state. The only Arab country less likely to rally around the ISIS flag is Lebanon, and that’s because a third of Lebanon’s people are Christians.

So if you live in Tunisia and yearn for that sort of thing, you have to go somewhere else.

Most of Tunisia’s ISIS members come from the same town anyway, a nasty place called Kasserine that I vowed to never visit again even before it became the ISIS factory that it is now.

Some countries suffer from brain drain. Their best and brightest emigrate to gentler and more prosperous lands when they can flourish. Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt—these places are all suffering from spectacular levels of brain drain.

Tunisia, meanwhile, is experiencing psychopath drain.

But some of its home-grown psychopaths are sticking around, and it’s extraordinary what just a handful can do. If they blew up their home town of Kasserine, hardly anybody would notice or care, but massacring people in Sousse is like massacring people in Miami. Americans by and large aren’t familiar with Sousse because it’s far away on a strange continent, but it’s a short hop for Europeans and Arabs and is as well-known on that side of the Atlantic as Cancun is on this side.

I’ve visited Sousse three times, first with my wife, then with my friend and occasional traveling companion Sean LaFreniere, and again with my colleague Armin Rosen.

A few years ago, in the early days of Tunisia’s democracy, Sean and I had dinner at an old French restaurant near the beach. The place was packed, the food outstanding, the bill tiny. I looked around the restaurant and saw bottles of red wine atop almost every table. None of the women were covered. The mood was care-free and light, airy and full of laugher. We could have been in France, but I heard no language in that restaurant but Arabic.

You can find restaurants like that one in Jordan, but they’re almost all attached to hotels and nearly all the patrons are foreign. In Sousse, though, Sean and I were perhaps the only foreigners, not because tourists were afraid to visit back then but because we were there in the winter, during the off season.

I’ve been almost everywhere in that country more than once. It felt solid. Kick the walls if you want. They won’t buckle. It will not come apart like Syria, Iraq or Libya. It was obvious from the very beginning that, post-Arab Spring, Tunisia would not explode in civil war like Syria, rupture into fragments like Libya, or devolve into another police state like Egypt. It sure as hell wouldn’t go the way of Afghanistan. That was clear.

“If the Islamists want to Talibanize this place,” I said to Sean as he sipped from his glass of Johnny Walker at that delightful restaurant in Sousse, “they’ll have to kill half the population in order to do it.”

He froze after I said that. I didn’t ask what he was thinking at that moment, and I doubt he’d remember if I asked him—this was years ago—but he clearly felt a chill. I felt a chill, too. And I remember what I thought when I felt it: The bastards will probably try.

The Price of American Diplomacy in Cuba

If you watched the American Embassy’s reopening ceremony in Cuba on television, or saw some of the photographs, you may have noticed dozens of bare flagpoles in the background.

There’s a story behind that.

After the US and Cuba dissolved relations during the Cold War, the former American Embassy building became the US Interests Section.

Not a lot went on in that building since our two nations didn’t have normal relations, but even mutually hostile governments have to talk to each other once in a while, especially if they’re neighbors, so the US posted diplomatic staff there.

And in 2006, they created a gigantic electronic billboard in the windows of the building to broadcast messages to the Cuban population outside. They quoted some terrific people.

 “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent” – Abraham Lincoln

“Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff.” – Frank Zappa

“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”—Universal Declaration on Human Rights

According to the Wall Street Journal, the billboard even pointed out that Forbes listed Fidel Castro as the seventh-richest head of state in the world. The guy is worth 900 million dollars while the wages of his miserable subjects are capped at twenty dollars a month.

You can imagine how well that went over down there. The whole thing enraged Castro. Remember, he and his brother Raul own all the newspapers in Cuba. You can’t buy the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or The Economist down there. Google News doesn’t exist either because private Internet access is outlawed.

If you want to read something, you’re stuck with the Granma, the Communist Party daily, or Rebel Youth, the magazine written by the elderly walking dead for the island’s young people who’ll go to prison if they rebel or even complain.

So yeah, Castro hated that billboard at what’s now the American Embassy. How dare the United States quote Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. So he erected 138 black flags in front of the building so the people of Cuba couldn’t see it.

In 2009, Barack Obama pulled the plug on it.

Let’s get one thing out of the way here. Barack Obama is not best friends forever with Fidel Castro. He does not prefer a tyrannical regime to Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. He pulled the plug because he wanted to improve relations with Cuba, and that billboard got in the way.

Fine. But it creates a bit of a quandary, doesn’t it? How does it look from the Cuban street if the United States government is all chummy with the government that kicks them in the ass every day?

Maybe it’s fine. Honestly, I don’t know. You won’t encounter much if any hostility from Cubans toward Americans if you go down there like I did. The same was true of the communist bloc in Europe during the Cold War.

Remember the 1979 revolution in Iran? Anti-Americanism was rampant there then. Why? Because the United States was all chummy with the tyrannical regime of the Shah Reza Pahlavi. Iran is still hostile more than a third of a century later.

And let’s not forget that Cuban anti-Americanism of yesteryear was the result of the United States government being all chummy with the previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

Sometimes you have to choose between having good relations with a nation’s government or good relations with a nation’s people. When dealing with awful regimes, you generally have to pick one or another.

There are exceptions. The US gets along just fine with both the government and the people of Vietnam right now despite the fact that Vietnam is still ruled by a one-party state that calls itself communist. Perhaps the same can happen in Cuba after a while. I have no idea, really.

Either way, I rather doubt the people of Cuba enjoyed having their access to Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln denied. Because they certainly aren’t getting inspiring messages from Fidel or Raul Castro.

The American Flag Flies Again Over Cuba

The American flag was raised over Cuba this weekend for the first time in 54 years at the official reopening of the US Embassy in Havana. Three of the Marines who lowered the flag as young men in 1961 ran it up the flagpole as old men.

Diplomatic relations between our two nations have been officially restored.

This is controversial in the United States, to say the least, but look: Cuba is not Iran, and it is not Syria. It certainly isn’t the Islamic State’s psychopathic “caliphate” in Raqqa.

Nothing bad is going to happen to the United States because we’re talking to Cuba again. Cuba is no longer hostile to the United States in any way that could conceivably harm us.

The Castro regime is hostile to ordinary Cubans, though, no doubt about it. It still runs the island as a jailhouse state with by far the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere.

Dissidents are routinely arrested and thrown into prison. Those who are eventually sent home live under constant total surveillance. The government stakes out their homes with intelligence agents and even video cameras.

Poverty is enforced by law. The vast majority of citizens are not permitted to earn more than twenty dollars a month unless they work in the tourist sector and get tips from foreigners. They’ll go to prison if they catch and eat a lobster. (All lobsters are strictly reserved for government-owned restaurants that cater to foreigners.) Private Internet access is illegal.

“The people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Havana at the embassy’s reopening ceremony, “where people are free to choose their leaders.”

Indeed. And we should be honest about the fact that restoring diplomatic relations will not make that happen.

But it probably won’t stymie it either. Why would it? Cubans will either revolt against the government and bring it down or they won’t. Having diplomatic relations with Tunisia didn’t prevent people from overthrowing the crooked Ben Ali a couple of years ago. Nor did diplomatic relations with South Korea and Taiwan in the early years of the Cold War prevent those countries from transitioning to democracy from military rule.

I visited Cuba in 2013. The economic reforms President Raul Castro has implemented are so marginal that they’re barely even detectable. Cuba is not communist-in-name-only like China and Vietnam. It’s still startlingly old-school.

Economic activity scarcely exists. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, there’s almost nothing to buy. Cubans still live mostly on ration cards. There are no boutique shopping districts, no chain stores, no corporate billboards along the highways and certainly no big-box stores like Target.

Billboards consist entirely of hysterical state propaganda. All newspapers (which is to say, both of them) are owned and controlled by the government. Dialogue doesn’t exist in that country. The state lectures and hectors while everyone else shuts up and listens.

Much of the propaganda is cartoonishly anti-American, but let me tell you: ordinary people hardly ever talk smack about the United States. I didn’t hear a single complaint about we dreaded Yankee imperialists from a single person. On the contrary, Cubans make it abundantly clear that they admire what we have and would like it for themselves. Their attitudes are remarkably mature, and their knowledge of the United States and its political system is surprisingly undistorted considering the fact that they’ve lived in a global media blackout and been served nothing but lies from their own government for more than a half-century.

Let’s just say that they’re a lot more friendly and neighborly than Fidel Castro.

I can’t be sure about this, but I’d wager they’re more pro-American than anyone else in the hemisphere. They’re certainly more pro-American than Mexicans and they’re probably more pro-American than Canadians.

They aren’t more pro-American despite living under a communist regime. They’re more pro-American because they live under a communist regime.

Don’t be surprised. We saw this in Europe. To this day, formerly communist Europe is vastly more pro-American than Western Europe. The only exception is Serbia, partly because the United States went to war against Serbia twice during the genocidal Milosevic era, but mostly because Serbians feel a cultural and political kinship with Russia.

Cuba is not a Caribbean version of Serbia. It’s more like a Caribbean version of Poland that hasn’t yet managed to free itself. If it had a land border with the United States, the regime almost certainly would have collapsed a long time ago. Practically every Cuban on earth would now be living in Florida. The regime should thank God, Marx and Engels that nature provided it with a permanent Berlin Wall in the form of the sea.

So we have an embassy in Havana again, but all is not normal. The embargo is still firmly in place. The White House and the State Department can restore diplomatic relations on their own, but Congress decides whether or not to lift sanctions. And Congress is not in the mood.

The Cuban government, for its part, insists that diplomatic relations will not be fully normalized until after the embargo is history, which is fair enough, actually. Nations with which we have truly normal relations—Canada, Chile, India, Japan and so on—are not being sanctioned by the American government.

It goes without saying that the embargo hasn’t led to democracy in Cuba, though that was not its original purpose. Congress imposed it when Fidel Castro stole millions of dollars in American property after he seized power from Fulgencio Batista. The embargo was partly a punishment, but it was also a way to future-proof American assets from a thieving gangster regime.

The embargo stuck around after the end of the Cold War, though, because it theoretically gave the United States a bit of leverage to bring Cuba’s political system in line with the norms in our hemisphere.

It didn’t work.

So maybe it is time to just scrap it. The government is spectacularly unlikely to steal American property again. Raul Castro’s second priority after keeping himself and his party in power is enriching the island.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Lifting the embargo won’t lead to democracy either. It would help the Cuban economy, and it would give Americans another nearby tourist option, but it would not bring about a regime-change any more than trading with Vietnam and China have led to regime-change in those countries. Lifting the embargo would, however, dissolve whatever leverage Washington might otherwise have in the future.

It would be a little like a surrender on our part. But surrender to what?

Should we do it?

Writers like me are supposed to pretend we have all the answers. I’m sorry to say that I don’t.

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