April 22 - 28
This Week: Syria's Red Lines, Iraq's Maliki problem, and the Kurdish Peace Process.
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for April 22 − 28!
This is the third in a series of increasingly weekly dispatches. I’m hoping to keep it up.
I’ve also added the New York Times’ Emphasis plugin - it allows you (and me) the ability to link to specific paragraphs within a dispatch, instead of just the dispatch itself. I’ve mostly added it so I can cross link to other posts more easily, but if it’s the sort of thing you’d find useful, check the link above to see how to use it.
Israel claimed this week to have proof that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in an attack that took place on March 19. The White House said on Thursday that US intelligence agencies had come to a similar conclusion, which the administration has previously said would be a “red line” in the Syrian conflict. On Friday, President Obama said that the US was still waiting for more conclusive evidence before deciding how to proceed, as the current evidence remains unreliable.
There are three reasons for the White House’s caution. First, the evidence is still spotty: the soil samples passed through many hands on their way to the intelligence agencies, the symptom reports are largely hearsay, and the rebels have been known to fake evidence of attacks in the past. Given the stakes, it’s prudent to wait until more solid evidence is available. That said, the evidence isn’t that shaky, and the situation in Syria isn’t going to allow much proper investigation - at the end of the day, this matter will be decided on the basis of intelligence assessments, not hard evidence. Second, the last time the US made bold claims about WMDs and a dictator in the middle east, it didn’t go particularly well - US claims of this sort are subject to a lot of scrutiny right now. Finally, though, we frankly don’t want to get involved. The US and the West have done everything possible to avoid actually committing military resources into a messy situation, and the hesitation to make a declaration on Syrian chemical weapon use is certainly driven in part by a desire to put off involvement as long as possible. This is a noble goal after a decade of military adventurism, but it’s starting to become untenable.
If the evidence continues to accumulate that the Syrian Army used chemical weapons, the US will be forced by its own rhetoric to act. Obama has called chemical weapon use a red line often enough that, if it becomes clear Assad has crossed that line, not taking action would be a substantial blow to US credibility abroad. This doesn’t seem a particularly compelling reason to go to war, but there are numerous conflicts around the world that are at least partially held in check by the credibility of US military assurances - including Israeli concerns over the Iranian nuclear program and the state of affairs in the South China Seas. A breach of US credibility in Syria would have effects beyond the Syrian conflict.
There are two actions the US could take to tip the balance of power in the Syrian conflict without actually putting boots on the ground. First, we can start actually arming the rebels. Fears of weapons being funneled to extremists are overblown - the extremists are already far better armed than the rest of the Free Syrian Army - and I think this is almost certain to happen if the White House decides the “red line” has been crossed. This would also give a boost to the groups most palatable to the US and restore part of our reputation among the opposition - there will still be a Syria five years from now, and it would be nice if the people in charge had good things to say about the West. The second, more costly, action would be imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, disabling the Syrian air force. The largest force disparity between the opposition and the government is in air power - the FSA is capable of taking and holding territory, but they’re still extremely vulnerable to the Assad regime’s air force. Removing the threat of bombings would allow the opposition true safe havens within the country and strengthen their hand significantly. The Syrian air force and air defenses are strong enough that this is a high-cost action, but neutralizing Syria’s air force would also mean the West could dodge questions of sending anti-air weapons to the opposition altogether, which would significantly lower the danger posed by weapons falling into extremist hands. The Free Syrian Army is underfunded, underarmed, fractious, and unable to effectively counter the Syrian air force - and despite all that has still managed to wage an effective campaign against the government. With any real outside support at all, I’d expect the tides to shift in favor of the opposition.
After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the US is extremely wary of getting involved in another conflict in the Middle East. The problem is, after 50-plus years of US engagement in the world, we’re too big and too connected to the rest of the world to be able to pull back like we want to. Syria is increasingly an example of this: the resentment building against the US in Syria isn’t because we got involved, it’s because we’ve avoided involvement in the face of mass atrocities and slaughter on the part of the government. If we ignore the use of chemical weapons, we’re sending a strong signal to the world, and not a good one.
Iraq’s simmering sectarian conflicts exploded on Tuesday when government forces stormed a protest camp, resulting in a gun battle that left 26 people dead. That assault sparked several days of sectarian conflict across the country, leaving at least 40 more dead.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has managed to drag Iraq back into the sectarian war it just barely survived during the worst days of the American occupation. The day after American forces left Iraq, Maliki, a Shia, ordered the arrest of his Sunni Vice President on charges of running a death squad. The sectarian situation hasn’t improved since then - Maliki has continued to use government forces to persecute and arrest prominent Sunni leaders on flimsy evidence, and the Sunni minority in Iraq has started talking about joining their brothers in Syria in the fight against the Shia, who rule both Syria and increasingly Iraq. This is a sharp and unfortunate turnaround from the days of the Sunni Awakening, in which the Sunni militias turned against al-Qaeda fighters and helped end the country’s ferocious civil war. If there’s hope for Iraq right now, it’s that Maliki isn’t particularly popular even among Shia - Iraq is, for now, still a democracy. If the country can survive Maliki’s tenure for another year or so, the next elections may see him out.
The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared its fighters would withdraw from Turkey on May 8, marking a significant step in ending nearly 30 years of armed conflict in the country.
The withdrawal is the next step in a peace process which, after being stalled for years, started showing real promise this year. The tide seems to have shifted for the Kurds: they control the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, the Syrian army has left Kurdish lands in Syria, and, if the Turkish peace process continues, they could have a home in Turkey again. For Turkey, this looks like a political play: F. Stephen Larrabee of the Rand Corporation suggests Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is looking to shore up Kurdish support for a bid at the presidency next year. Whatever the cause, the end of a 30-year insurgency is good for all parties.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!