The Syrian Civil War in pieces of the broken mirror
“The conflict has become like a Middle East version of the Thirty Years’ War in Germany four hundred years ago. Too many players are fighting each other for different reasons for all of them to be satisfied by peace terms and to be willing to lay down their arms at the same time. Some still think they can win and others simply want to avoid a defeat. In Syria, as in Germany between 1618 and 1648, all sides exaggerate their own strength and imagine that temporary success on the battlefield will open the way to total victory. Many Syrians now see the outcome of their civil war resting largely with the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. In this, they are probably right.”
Dangers, surprises, devastations --
The war takes hold and will not quit.
But though it last three generations
We shall get nothing out of it.
Starvation, filth, and cold enslave us.
The army robs us of our pay.
Only a miracle can save us
And miracles have had their day.
Christians, awake! The winter's gone!
The snows depart, the dead sleep on.
And though you may not long survive
Get out of bed and look alive!
--Bertold Brecht, 1939, "Mother Courage," set during the Thirty Years War.
All Sides in the Syria War Have at Least One Thing in Common: Slaughtering Civilians
Nearly five years after Syria’s Arab Spring revolt escalated into a civil war, the conflict has morphed into a wider regional war with no end in sight. Millions of Syrians have fled, and a quarter of a million have died. Now, a devastating new United Nations report reveals that government forces are torturing and “disappearing” tens of thousands of civilians in what amounts to “extermination” and “crimes against humanity.” The U.N. is warning the Syrian army that if it goes ahead with a planned assault on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, hundreds of thousands of Syrians could be cut off from food and face starvation. The international body has also issued a strong statement about residents of another Syrian town, Madaya, who are starving to death as government forces lay siege.
“We haven’t seen a catastrophe like this since World War II, and it’s unfolding before our eyes,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week. While those are strong words, the United States has yet to implement a coherent policy regarding Syria.
What is unfolding is a deadlier stage of a war that is drawing in so many actors that it is nearly impossible to keep track of who is fighting whom. And the American mainstream media seem disinterested in digging into the details, focusing instead on breathless coverage of our horse-race primary election season.
Chief among the internal forces in Syria is the regime of Bashar Assad, whose hands are dripping with the blood of innocent civilians. Assad’s main external backer, Russia, has raised the stakes by adding the heavy weight of its ground forces and airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians.
Iran is another external player whose interests are aligned with Assad. Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian allies, is ostensibly fighting several internal forces, chief among them Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whose macabre tactics have eclipsed those of other rebel groups. Islamic State is vying with Assad for generating the greatest civilian death toll. But it has been backed, at least in the past, by another external actor, Saudi Arabia.
Now the Saudis and their allies in the Yemen war—the Emiratis—are hoping to get in on the action, by announcing a potential entry of ground troops in Syria. Saudi Arabia is claiming it will fight the very group its money has illicitly spawned: Islamic State. If that sounds implausible, Russia agrees. The Russians suspect that Saudi Arabia will simply support Islamic State against Assad (and Saudi rival Iran) in hopes of gaining regional influence in a post-Assad Syria.
To complicate matters even more, another external actor, Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, might enter into the fray to fight alongside anti-Assad groups. Some areaccusing Russia of drawing Turkey into a war against its nemesis, the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Turkey is facing a massive refugee crisis, and the U.N. has urged it to open its borders to Syrian civilians fleeing Assad’s killings, Islamic State’s brutality and Russian and U.S. bombings.
The complexity of the war doesn’t stop there. President Obama, who has been reluctant to send in ground troops, has joined the air war on Syria, but he hasn’t been clear about exactly whom the U.S. is fighting. On the one hand, Islamic State is a clear-cut “enemy,” but Assad is too murderous to call a friend.
Like Russia, the U.S. has Syrian blood on its hands. Airstrikes have killed untold numbers of civilians. The U.S. military boasts that it has killed 20,000 Islamic State fighters and only 21 civilians, which is hardly believable. Some contend the number of civilians killed by U.S. bombs is as high as a thousand.
Now that Russia has intervened aggressively, the U.S. has all but admitted that toppling Assad is no longer feasible. For that reason, it appears to be withdrawing supportfrom anti-Assad rebel groups.
While no student of world history believes the U.S. would ever orchestrate regime change for truly humanitarian reasons, by not going after Assad the U.S. is, by default, on the side of a mass murderer.
To summarize, some U.S. allies, such as Turkey, are fighting Assad, while Russia and Iran are backing his regime. Others, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are ostensibly fighting Islamic State, which puts them on the side of Assad, although they might end up helping Islamic State. The U.S. hasn’t figured out whether to fight Assad and Islamic State or just Islamic State. In the meantime, it is dropping bombs from the sky.
All that is certain is that everyone is killing civilians.
In the 19th century, a long-drawn-out rivalry between the British Empire and Russia over Central Asia that dragged on for nearly 100 years was dubbed “The Great Game.” A new Great Game appears to be playing out on Syria’s bloodstained soil, with intertwined allegiances and deadly firepower on all sides. The political and military threads of the war are so complex that it is useful to visualize them as lines of red crisscrossing the Syrian map, drawing blood from children, women and men.
But the war in Syria is anything but a game. U.N.-sponsored peace talks have failed, and upcoming talks also appear doomed as Assad’s ground offensive in Aleppo looks likely to commence.
The war in Syria (and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen) underscores the fact there is no easy solution to such crises in our current global political system. But there is a common denominator: U.S. interference and military domination. If there is no clear path for the U.S. to take in Syria, it is because for decades Washington has deliberately undermined global multilateral diplomatic arenas and ensured that we are left with no functioning forum or pathway for ending brutal dictatorships or solving humanitarian disasters such as those taking place in Syria—at least not in a way that protects human rights in the short term and democracy in the long term. And so we are left with a trail of blood and misery stretching from Afghanistan to Iraq, and from Yemen to Syria.
Writing about Syria taps deeply into one’s store of superlatives and negative adjectives. For example, The Washington Post used the words “catastrophe,” “uncontrollable” and “disaster” in a single headline about the war.
The numbers of dead and dying are dizzying. But we must confront their suffering. An 8-year-old survivor of a cluster bomb attack in Douma reminds us of the reality Syrians are facing. Nour, whose face bears an unnerving resemblance to my own son’s, lost both his legs. He wants the world to see the place where his limbs once were.
“Show my picture to my friends and let them know about me,” he said. “Show the pictures of my legs and let my friends and their mothers know that I am injured.” We need to know about Nour and the countless unknown dead, dying and injured Syrians that our global political system has failed.
Who Runs the Pentagon?
Not Defense Secretary Ashton Carter—while he may be more than a figurehead, “the building” has no boss.
Andrew J. Bacevich
The crippling and pervasive defects in us national-security policy—costly exertions that, time and again, fail to yield the promised results—are patently obvious, consistently bemoaned, and yet effectively tolerated. To say that the apparatus principally responsible for implementing those policies is an underperforming behemoth qualifies as a considerable understatement. The kindest verdict one can offer regarding the Pentagon is that it marginally outperforms its first cousin, the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The next president will enter office in January 2017 vowing to correct those defects. The likelihood that he or she will succeed in doing so is nil. The reasons why are legion, but prominent among them is the fact that those who ascend to the top of the national-security apparatus invariably arrive in the Pentagon as unwitting agents of the status quo. By the time they land one of the top jobs, they have long since forfeited any capacity for critical thought.
To illustrate the point, consider the case of Ashton Carter, now a year in office as secretary of defense. The 25th person to hold that position since its inception just 69 years ago, Carter is seasoned, able, and undoubtedly well-intentioned. Yet he is as much a creature of the Pentagon as he is its CEO. He embodies the culture of national security, having absorbed its assumptions, worldview, habits, and language.
According to his official biography, “Secretary Carter has spent more than three decades leveraging his knowledge of science and technology, global strategy and policy as well as his deep dedication to the men and women of the Department of Defense to make our nation and the world a safer place.” Along the way, he acquired a bushel of impressive credentials. After graduating from Yale, Carter won a Rhodes scholarship and eventually returned from Oxford with a PhD in theoretical physics. His current Pentagon tour of duty is his fourth, and follows earlier stints as deputy secretary; undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics; and assistant secretary for international-security policy. As they say in Washington, Carter “knows the building.” When not in government service, “Ash” contemplates ways of making the world a safer place at prestigious universities like Harvard and Stanford, while sitting on boards and commissions that provide venues for out-of-office members of the national-security elite to audition while talking shop. Depending on your point of view, Carter arrived in his present post either exceedingly well-prepared or thoroughly vetted.
Upon assuming office in February 2015, Carter wasted no time in identifying his three priorities: first, helping the commander in chief to make sound decisions and then implementing those decisions “with our department’s long-admired excellence”; second, caring for all the members—military and civilian alike—of “the greatest fighting force the world has ever known”; and third, building “the force of the future.” This last priority means “embracing the future” while simultaneously finding ways to economize through “a leaner organization, less overhead, and reforming our business and acquisition practices.”
Although offering little that is novel or distinctive, Carter’s agenda qualifies as unobjectionable. Devoid of specifics, his goals are those of a technocrat, charged with presiding over a system that he knows well and accepts. Reduced to its essence, Carter’s message to “the building” at the outset of his tenure was this: “We’re terrific! And I know how to make us better still!”
Since taking office, Carter has spent his time doing what defense secretaries do. He flies around the world visiting the troops and consulting with field commanders. He presides at ceremonies, hosts visiting dignitaries, testifies before Congress, makes speeches, holds press conferences, and appears on TV. He manages—or pretends to manage—a sprawling bureaucracy. He makes decisions, sometimes dressed up for the occasion as “historic,” but typically representing an incremental departure from past practice—lifting the ban on women serving in combat, for example. And by no means least of all, he facilitates the expenditure of money in staggeringly large quantities.
Averting change while pretending to foster it represents the defense secretary’s foremost function.
What Carter has not done is pose first-order questions related to national-security policy and practice. Instead, he has deferred to and thereby protected existing routines and arrangements. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Averting change while pretending to foster it represents the defense secretary’s foremost, even if unacknowledged, function. In the history of that office, only two of Carter’s predecessors have had the temerity to challenge that proposition. The first was Robert McNamara in the period from 1961 to ’68; the second was Donald Rumsfeld from 2001 to ’06.
McNamara showed up for work intent on imposing a management system imported from the postwar corporate world. He aimed to align the Pentagon with fads and fashions straight out of Harvard Business School, as implemented in the Detroit auto industry. Precisely 40 years later, Rumsfeld sought to impose an entirely new approach to waging war. With information technology all the rage among the military intelligentsia, Rumsfeld believed that fads and fashions pioneered by Silicon Valley could enable the US military to revolutionize the way it fights.
Each project deservedly and ignominiously failed. Yet in both cases, the implications of failure went well beyond the rejection of a particular reform agenda. McNamara and Rumsfeld, each in his own way, had attempted a radical assertion of civilian control. Each in turn had insisted that someone should be in charge, not merely symbolically but substantively. Each had insisted that there be but a single hand on the Pentagon tiller: his own. Eventually, arrogance did them in, compounded by the ill-advised and mismanaged wars that destroyed their reputations. One further consequence of their respective failures was to gut the concept of civilian control. Although the principle remained, the practice became squishy.
The result was by no means a handing of authority to the brass. Neither McNamara’s downfall nor Rumsfeld’s several decades later meant that the generals now called the shots. Instead, the effect of their demise was to disperse authority, leaving no one really in charge and therefore no one accountable.
* * *
Today, for public consumption, all hands sustain the pretense of loyally pulling together in response to the Pentagon coxswain’s calls. In reality, however, relentless intramural competition drives behavior. Inside the building, what passes for the formulation of strategy amounts to little more than apportioning budget share. Reconciling the contradictory demands made by rival services, commands, and programs supplants the national interest as the summum bonum.
As a consequence, in place of a coherent approach to the world, aimless forward momentum prevails. This defines our present situation, with Ash Carter nominally at the Pentagon’s helm.
The military-industrial complex looks to Carter to preserve the status and prerogatives its members have long enjoyed.
It’s part of Carter’s job to prevent anyone from noticing. He does this by uttering with apparent sincerity reassuringly familiar platitudes, such as those he recited upon assuming office and has repeated since on several occasions. Yet platitudes amount to little more than a smoke screen. Behind that smoke screen, sound decisions competently implemented by a lean-and-mean organization that looks after the troops are the exception rather than the rule. The defense secretary may be more than a figurehead, but he is not the boss. There is no boss.
* * *
To appreciate the implications, consider the conflict formerly known as the Global War on Terrorism. Today, nearly 15 years after it began, it continues with no end in sight. The inability of “the greatest fighting force the world has ever known” to bring that enterprise to a successful close would seem to require an explanation. Secretary Carter offers none. Nor does he even hazard a guess as to when, how, or at what cost the final victory will be gained. Instead, he gives such questions the widest possible berth. Indeed, he ignores them.
To be fair, on what has become the most pressing front of that larger struggle, the fight against the Islamic State, Carter has not been silent. Obama’s defense chief forthrightly defends an approach to dealing with ISIS that few outside the administration itself find defensible. Echoing the president, Secretary Carter vows to destroy the Islamic State. Yet the Pentagon’s evolving campaign, which he routinely endorses, combines the worst features of mission creep with gradual escalation. Operation Inherent Resolve, as it’s called, has been small ball all the way.
That Carter spends so much of his own time managing the campaign to defeat ISIS suggests a warped understanding of what a defense secretary exists to do. Yes, as an operational problem, ISIS poses real challenges. But those challenges are not overwhelming; we’re not talking about storming Festung Europa here. Given adequate resources, a reasonably competent staff-college graduate should be able to figure out how to prevail over an adversary that lacks an air force, possesses few modern weapons, and by relying on nihilistic violence alienates the population it presumes to govern.
Far more imposing than the operational challenge is the strategic one: addressing the conditions that give rise to entities like ISIS in the first place. Panicky Americans or demagogic presidential candidates may fancy that taking down this one organization is the key to restoring order in the Greater Middle East. Yet to nurse that fantasy is to ignore the lessons of the past 15 years, if not of the past century. Destroying ISIS is a worthy goal, but unless the underlying conditions are also addressed, doing so will merely pave the way for some successor group, likely to be just as vile. How to pre-empt the appearance of that successor—now that’s a conundrum worthy of a defense secretary’s attention.
Yet addressing that conundrum requires this admission: The problem that our ongoing war purports to be solving has no military solution; indeed, pressing for one only makes matters worse. Once heretical, these propositions today find increasing favor, even in some military quarters, and should provide the basis for a far-reaching policy reassessment.
The facts speak for themselves: The militarized approach conceived as a response to 9/11, back when illusions of US military supremacy ran rampant, has manifestly flopped. Yet even today, neither Secretary Carter nor any of his chief subordinates seem prepared to own up to this reality.
In all likelihood, years of intense conditioning render them incapable of doing so. That certainly appears to be the case with the current Pentagon chief. Hence, when faced with a military enterprise gone awry, his preference is for tinkering rather than for thinking anew. So, in Iraq, Carter expands target lists, widens the mandate of US special operators, and boosts the cadre of American trainers, vaguely hoping that some combination of intensified activity might turn things around—even as he allows issues of far greater import to languish unattended. In effect, the technocrat becomes little more than a military meddler.
What should command the defense secretary’s attention? Recasting US military strategy in the Islamic world ought to head the list. This means correctly identifying the adversary—which is neither terrorism nor Islam—and then realistically appraising its capacity to inflict harm, which falls well short of existential. It also means thinking creatively about ways to offset the adversary’s strengths and exploit its vulnerabilities. Secretary Carter’s silence on such matters suggests that he finds them either uninteresting or unimportant—or that he has nothing to say.
* * *
Truth be told, even entertaining the possibility of alternative strategies spooks the constituencies that Carter represents as defense secretary. Here we arrive at the heart of the matter: Re-examining the premises of US policy in the Greater Middle East will necessarily jeopardize suppositions—about the efficacy of the US military presence and projecting US military might—that have enabled the national-security establishment to prosper for decades. The bureaucratic and corporate components of that establishment will view with alarm any hint of diminishing the emphasis that the United States assigns to possessing and wielding so-called hard power. The military-industrial complex looks to Carter to preserve the status and prerogatives its members have long enjoyed. Based on his performance thus far, their confidence is entirely justified.
By way of example, consider the case of the recently unveiled Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B), far and away the most important Pentagon initiative begun on Carter’s watch. Nothing about the LRS-B program is minor league, especially in terms of the fiscal requirements it entails. While words and catchphrases may carry promises of sound decisions, good stewardship, and forward-looking change, it’s where the money goes that matters.
In October, without anyone paying much attention, Secretary Carter rubber-stamped Air Force plans to field this new manned bomber. In the guise of “embracing the future,” he thereby acceded to one service’s preference for perpetuating its past.
According to Carter, the initial contract awarded to Northrop Grumman to develop the LRS-B—ultimately expected to be worth $55 billion—sends a powerful message, “making it crystal clear that the United States will continue to retain the ability to project power throughout the globe long into the future.” In fact, by signing off on this new aircraft, Carter was sending an altogether different message: “Not to worry; on my watch, business as usual will prevail.”
According to Pentagon estimates, the cost of the LRS-B when it becomes operational at some unspecified future date will be approximately $500 million per aircraft. Since such estimates are rarely if ever even remotely accurate, we should treat this one with a grain of salt. By way of comparison, the B-2, the current front-line strategic bomber, cost $1.2 billion each when built nearly three decades ago. Although it’s theoretically possible that new and better will also be cheaper, nothing in the history of American weapons design supports such expectations. Indeed, to extrapolate from other recent programs like the F-35 fighter, which has seen costs balloon during its 15 years of gestation, we can reasonably expect the LRS-B to carry a price tag of $2 billion to $3 billion per bomber. So the handsome down payment promised to Northrop Grumman is just for starters. By acceding to the Air Force’s insistence that it needs the LRS-B, Carter has launched a project certain to consume at least a couple of hundred billion dollars.
It goes without saying that this promises to be a bonanza of sorts for military contractors, shareholders, employees, and lucky members of Congress in districts where the work will get done. For the Air Force, the rewards qualify as even more fundamental: The new bomber will affirm a cherished identity. Thanks to the LRS-B, the Air Force will remain in this century what it was during the last: an institution defined by its employment of piloted aircraft to deliver death and destruction over great distances, just as Billy Mitchell, Hap Arnold, and Curtis LeMay intended.
Those positing that drones may well render the LRS-B obsolete before it ever drops its first bomb are therefore missing the point. So are those who suggest that in a cyber age, the disabling of targets may no longer require their physical obliteration. Ditto those wondering why the United States needs yet another expensive means of delivering nuclear weapons (as the LRS-B will be designed to do), given the existence of land- and sea-based missiles already providing a secure deterrent.
Will this new strategic bomber “make our nation and the world a safer place”? Only time will tell, but don’t bet on it. In the interim, however, the LRS-B program offers myriad benefits. Measured in profits and jobs and expectations of campaign contributions, those benefits are specific and concrete. In this regard, the LRS-B already rates as a huge success.
Where it matters most, Carter has delivered. His LRS-B decision signals his allegiance to the long-standing arrangements that the various components of the military-industrial complex are keen to perpetuate. Here is an implicit assurance that the Navy can count on getting that new aircraft carrier and the Army a new generation of armored vehicles or helicopters. Through such purchases, “the greatest fighting force the world has ever known” will remain, at least in its own estimation, great—never mind its inability to end wars on terms favorable to the United States.
Meanwhile, however, America’s larger military project in the Greater Middle East meanders along inconclusively, an undertaking that may one day see the LRS-B releasing a few parcels of high-tech ordnance to kill a few “terrorists.” By then, probably decades from now, it will be left to some other secretary of defense to describe the results as evidence of progress.