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Syria: Is the answer Diplomacy or War?

by John Brian Shannon | October 31, 2015

The only good thing to come out of the Syrian situation has been the organized removal of chemical weapons from the country

No doubt, tiny numbers of chemical warheads are in the hands of extremist groups who stole them from the Syrian Army at some point over the past 30 years. And it is possible that the Syrian Army has small numbers of such weapons that they can’t presently retrieve because they are well hidden in abandoned bases or in regions of the country now controlled by ISIS or other terror groups.

Regardless, the removal of most of Syria’s chemical weapons is by far the best success story to come out of the whole Syrian situation.

Something to build on. Except that nobody has…

Which is a shame. Because had the path of (careful, quiet, but firm) diplomacy continued, we might not have ever seen a Syrian civil war. Or if we did, it would’ve amounted to a number of small skirmishes, and only that.

SCUD missile destroys neighbourhood near Aleppo, Syria.

A man at a site hit by what activists say was a SCUD missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighborhood. Photo dated February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

State Department policy makers and Pentagon war strategists knew that going to war against Iraq in 2003 would create a huge number of refugees that would flee to neighbouring states, including Syria.

The fact that there *is* now an ISIS (or ISIL) was no surprise to them, these are eventualities in every war. Refugees will flee to countries in the region and tell their stories to the locals. Which generates anger and thoughts of revenge.

In WWII, this led to many underground groups operating (heroically) to fight their Nazi oppressors.

In the Iraq War (and since) this led to the formation of a multitude of (wrong-headed) groups being formed with names like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Levant in order to fight their perceived oppressors.

Syria was already the most fertile ground in the region to produce a cadre of anti-Western fighters and anti-Assad-regime fighters. Ergo, the rise of terror groups in Syria and a two-track war (from the point of view of the terrorists) was inevitable. One track being dedicated to the fight against the coalition that invaded Iraq and the other track dedicated to the overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad.

These things were and are utterly predictable and foreseen by the State Department and the Pentagon.

What has been lacking are policies to deal with the eventualities of the Iraq War

Due to the power vacuum that created the right conditions to enable five years of Syrian civil war, Russia, Iran, and now Iraq, cobbled together a (mostly military) response to the disaster in Syria which has some Americans angry at their news channel.

However, before a coherent Syria policy can be devised by the United States, some questions need answers:

  1. Is the United States the world’s policeman?
  2. Should the U.S. get involved in every internecine squabble in the world?
  3. Can the U.S. afford that?
  4. Is that what taxpayers are paying for?
  5. Does the U.S. belong in Syria?
  6. Does fighting Muslim terrorists only create more terrorists?
  7. And does fighting Muslim terrorists only convince them to look with renewed vigor at the U.S. as a target?

It should be a major topic of discussion by 2016 presidential candidates as the answers to those questions will determine U.S. policy in the region for the next decade (at least) and will affect everything from the economy (Iraq War $1 trillion, for one example) to (potentially) civil unrest in the U.S.A. (see: Vietnam protest movement of the 60’s and 70’s) to America’s future standing in the world.

Situations like we see in Syria are not something a president can dispatch 10 military helicopters to solve over the course of a weekend.

Indeed, Syria is in such disarray and there are so many variables there that the best U.S. policy might be complete non-involvement by the U.S. — as every other option is almost certainly worse.

Of course, there are some U.S citizens who would approve without further ado, another $1 trillion dollar war bill, another 5000 U.S. military dead, and another generation of America-haters bent on destruction of the U.S.A.

These people fall into two broad groups:

  • The do-gooders, who want peace, democracy, and freedom to one day flourish in Syria — they want to see Syria as the next Costa Rica or UAE. (Wouldn’t that be nice? Yes!)
  • The war-economy people, who think that any war is good for the overall economy and for the largest number of Americans, even though comparatively small numbers of military people may get killed or maimed in battle.

On those two broad groups, I think both camps are naive people who’ve not had the chance to travel the world and see what it is really like, nor have ever served their country in a combat role, nor have any experience in international relations. The fact that they are likely to be incredibly patriotic citizens, is a different matter altogether.

And there are the people who think the U.S. should pursue a course of non-involvement in Syria and those people too, fall into their own two groups:

  • Those who feel that the U.S. should return to being a near-isolationist nation and that the Executive and the Government should expend their efforts on the domestic economy and other domestic issues.
  • Those who feel that Syria is a no-win-situation for the U.S. and see it for the moneypit that it could represent to America.

On those two similar groups, I think that isolationism can work well in the short term. However, history shows us that after only one decade of an isolationist posture it begins to work against America’s best interests and for that reason should only be invoked for ten years per century at the most. As for U.S. involvement in Syria to continue being a no-win situation, I think there is only a remote chance to pull success out of the epic disaster that is Syria.

To summarize my view of the entire Syrian situation, let me say this; If there is a return to the long term, careful, quiet, but firm diplomacy — of a kind that worked to allow most of Syria’s chemical weapons to be removed and destroyed without firing a shot — then we might see the chances for successful U.S. involvement in Syria rise past 50 percent. Otherwise it’s a losing proposition for the U.S.A. with zero chance for a win by any metric whatsoever

But even a qualified success requires that a president have a significant mandate from voters, support within the State Department, the Pentagon, and a good relationship with the various partner nations poised to assist in the rebuilding of Syria.

Without all of that, even a U.S. president with the best of intentions has no chance of pulling a success out of the Syrian situation. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. A U.S. president who knows what to do, it’s just that not everyone is there yet.

How do I know that?

Let’s look at the building blocks that have been placed in and around Syria in recent years:

BB1: The first ‘building block’ of a successful Middle East policy for the U.S. was the removal of American combat troops from Iraq.

BB2: The second ‘building block’ was the successful program to remove chemical weapons from Syria and its success is almost unprecedented.

(Yes, Moammar Ghadaffi gave up his WMD’s and was promptly killed for his good deed — not a good precedent for similar diplomatic initiatives in the future. And yet, in spite of that terrible precedent, the Obama Administration was able to secure the Syrian chemical weapons deal. And now Bashar Al-Assad is ‘under fire’ literally and politically, for his good deed. Such obscene precedent-setting in the case of Moammar Ghadaffi and Bashar Al-Assad is not conducive to other world leaders giving up their WMD’s in the future — something many people would like to see happen within their lifetimes)

BB3: The third ‘building block’ was a successful nuclear deal with Iran.

BB4: The fourth ‘building block’ must now be a lowering of the rhetoric surrounding the Syrian situation and a return to consensus-building between all of the interested parties — and that must occur without any preconditions, save for the safety of the negotiating teams.

(Preconditions such as removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power are non-starters. Regardless of his actions, he is still the democratically-elected leader of Syria and that country is fully engulfed in civil war. Until such times as he loses an election and refuses to step down, we have no legal case to be in the country except by invitation)

BB5: The fifth ‘building block’ must be a high-level diplomatic push by all interested parties. If former President Jimmy Carter were in better health I would nominate him to lead the American team, and I suggest that the Russians would respond with their best retired diplomat to lead their team.

All other diplomatic teams too, must be led by high level retired diplomats of the highest calibre — ones that have long ago surpassed the desire for media accolades or career advancement. It’s time to ‘get it right’ it’s not the time to ‘use the present situation to get a better career posting’.

I’m only half-joking when I say that all of these diplomats should be locked away in a conference centre in Geneva or Istanbul and not let out until they have arrived at the best plan to save Syria as a viable nation-state, save the Syrian people from five more years of horror, return the Syrian economy to a steady-state and restore Syria to a place of good standing among the nations.

I believe that President Obama has been quietly ahead of everyone on all of this and has put the ‘building blocks’ in place right under everyone’s noses. His only limitations are the people he must work through in order to accomplish these things. And he has limited time, as January 20, 2017 will be his last day in office.

Those who seek confrontation with Syria, Iran, Russia (or any country) are operating at the lowest-common-denominator level (to put it politely) and have no concept whatsoever of what it takes to build a safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order (that is also) compatible with American values.

A safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order is the obvious goal for humankind. Therefore, all of our policies and actions must always be in accordance with our mission otherwise we will without doubt, fail as a species.

And that, my friends, is where we are today.

Spratly Islands in the Spotlight

by John Brian Shannon | October 27, 2015

The Spratly Islands are a hodgepodge of islets that sometimes appear above sea level in the South China Sea

At high tide, only a few islets are visible above the waterline, while at low tide most of the islets are exposed. Which is concerning enough for ship Captains sailing in perfectly clear midday weather — but can be downright terrifying at night, or during a storm or typhoon with the ship being tossed around by waves as it is simultaneously pulled along by the incredibly powerful and deep currents in that waterway.

The Spratly’s are also located in the centre of a typhoon corridor, which means there are frequent distress calls during the annual storm season. Depending upon local weather conditions the islands can vanish under the waves by a few feet, or they can appear above the surface of the water.

South China Sea dispute October, 2015

South China Sea dispute October, 2015

Until now, the Spratly Island chain was merely a complex navigational challenge for ships to navigate around, especially at night or in inclement weather

Recently, China began a dredging/island reclamation project on one of the Spratly Islands to turn one or more of the islets into air bases, presumably to serve as a refueling station for their long range patrol or military aircraft, or possibly for civilian airliners in distress.

Military planes aircraft are notoriously thirsty aircraft — either because they are long range patrol aircraft of significant size and weight and therefore use a lot of fuel, or are lightweight, high-performance fighter aircraft which use even more fuel per hour. Having a nearby refuelling station/landing strip can lower the stress level of military pilots to put it mildly.

And for ships that have encountered rough weather or have had mechanical difficulties, the Spratly Islands are located perfectly should China decide to maintain a Chinese Coast Guard presence there. It is the logical place to deploy from in order to rescue passengers from ships in distress or aircraft crashed in the water.

Finally, in the case of combatting at-sea piracy and to conduct anti-terrorism inspection of suspect ships, the Spratly Islands are well-positioned to host the necessary aircraft, ships and anti-terror personnel.

IF that is what China is planning, they are doing a good deed for all of the shipping and aircraft that pass through that waterway and smart nations that regularly travel through the region might consider contributing funds or other assistance to that noble endeavor.

The fear has been raised that the Spratly airbases could be used as a ‘jumping-off point’ for attacks by China on Southeast Asian nations

Well yes. That could happen. But then again, a big piece of plasma could be ejected by the Sun and crash into Earth wiping out all life on the planet. Neither is very likely, yet it is theoretically possible that either (or both) could happen.

It just depends if you see the glass as half-full or half empty

If you see the United States and its partners as nations that are sliding from their historical high place in the world and are now feeling threatened by China’s incredible economic surge, then it’s understandable that the U.S. and its partners might base their decisions on fear.

If you don’t think the sky is falling, then the Spratly’s are a ‘tempest-in-a-teapot’ and that ships should continue to navigate as carefully around those islets as they’ve done for centuries.

If it were up to me

Were the decision up to me, or if we had a stronger UN body, the suggestion would be to use nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes — boring holes deep beneath the islands to safely place an appropriately sized bomb, in order to liquefy all of the rock 5 miles below the islands.

By deploying a number of tiny nuclear devices deep under the rock formations upon which those islands stand, the rock strata far below the islets could be liquefied, allowing the islets to sink deep below the surface — permanently removing those threats to shipping in the region.

This has been done before, and with zero radiation release into the air or water. It’s a completely enclosed detonation and like the molten magma deep under the Earth’s crust it would never come anywhere near the atmosphere or seawater.

One would hope that one islet would be spared for the purposes of building a massive emergency base that all Southeast Asian nations would “own a share of” and “feel comfortable enough with” to contribute aircraft, ships and personnel in order to maintain a high level of anti-piracy/anti-terrorism readiness, for rescue missions, and to carry forward-based and rapid assistance to future tsunami/earthquake victims throughout the region.

Of the choices available to us, which are the most appropriate?

  • Human beings could use our much vaunted technology to sink all of the Spratly Islands to a depth far below any ship hulls thereby removing a significant navigational hazard from the charts.
  • China could turn one of the islands into a joint rescue, anti-piracy, and anti-terrorism super-base, where  operations could operate at a high level and tsunami/earthquake aid could maintain a rapid-response level. (This could be done regardless of whether the other islets were sunk)
  • We could annoy and provoke China into a conflict over how far we allow that country to project its maritime power. That fight could escalate in a matter of minutes or days, and as both China and the U.S. are superpowers it’s possible that the conflict could spread far beyond the South China Sea.

From a purely human life and health standpoint, deaths due to shipping accidents worldwide are relatively rare, amounting to less than 8,000 people per year, while deaths due to terrorism total less than 15,000 per year, and military conflict between nations can range from small numbers of deaths up to (potentially) all life on the planet if a nuclear war between two superpowers is allowed to develop.

Therefore, it seems appropriate to resolve the situation using diplomacy. In that way, the present default slide towards conflict can be turned into a positive.

Win-Win or Lose-Lose: Our choice

Human beings will either be ‘up to the task’ of resolving the differences between nation states, or eventually there will be no life on the planet.

Let’s be civilized people and choose, Win-Win.

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Syria: The Roots of Civil War

by John Brian Shannon | October 1, 2015

All war is brutal. Whether civil war, insurgency, guerrilla war, conventional or nuclear, all are brutal. And in war, no one weapon is worse than another. If you die or are injured by being blown to fragments by artillery, mines, barrel bombs or conventional bombs dropped by aircraft — you’re just as dead or injured as by machine-gun fire.

Too many commentators are trying to make negative political points about the Assad regime by citing Syria’s use of ‘barrel bombs’ — to convince us that those are the ultimate in inhuman and horrific weapons. As if getting killed by a ‘barrel bomb’ is somehow much worse than getting killed by a mine or by machine-gun fire.

Characterizing some bombs as ‘worse’ than other bombs, etc. takes our focus away from the underlying reasons for the conflict and how we might solve it.

Demonstrators chant slogans to support ISIS. Image by NBC News (AP File photo from June 16, 2014)

In this June 16, 2014 file photo, demonstrators chant slogans to support the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. The al-Qaida breakaway group has seized much of northern Syria and huge tracts of neighboring Iraq formally declaring the creation of an Islamic state on Sunday, June 29, 2014 in the territory under its control. (AP Photo, File)

What we should be concentrating on is how many innocent people are getting killed or maimed, how many refugees are being created, and how many months will it take to solve the Syrian conflict

And as is always the case, military people are well supported by their organizations and get paid to engage in warfighting, while civilians are (obviously) vastly unprepared to deal with war.

Consequently, many of them do the intelligent thing and leave the conflict region when they are able. This puts huge strain on neighbouring nations as they struggle to accept millions of refugees. Turkey is on track to surpass 2 million by January, 2016 and other nations in the region have accepted hundreds of thousands.

Syria: The Path to Civil War

By using deductive reasoning, we can safely assume the civil war now raging inside Syria is due to the many anti-coalition fighters who fled the 2003-2011 Iraq War, once they realized they couldn’t beat the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

Such fighters were then able to live and operate virtually ignored in Syria (and Lebanon) as anti-coalition sentiment was running high in the region in the aftermath of the Shock and Awe invasion due to the Syrian people seeing only the results of, and hearing the accounts of, the Iraq War from fleeing Iraqi civilians.

A similar situation on a smaller scale occurred during the Arab Spring months.

Ergo, both the Iraq War and Arab Spring added to anti-Western sentiments in the region

This created a robust ISIS force practically out of thin air — with tacit support from Syrian citizens and the citizens of other nearby nations.

Reality Check:

  • Was there an ISIS before the Iraq War? No.
  • Was there an ISIS during the Iraq War from 2003-2011? No.
  • Was there an ISIS before the Arab Spring of 2010? No.
  • Was there an ISIS during the Arab Spring? No.

Therefore, the ISIS entity was born in ‘the Arab Street’ which is the name for the collage of meeting places where Arab peoples meet, sometime after the Iraq War of 2003-2011 and after the 2010 Arab Spring.

Religion has nothing to do with it

Just as religion had nothing to do with WWI, WWII, or any recent war, this isn’t a religious war although various sides will always try to employ religion (the Crusaders, Osama Bin Laden) or the occult (Hitler) to serve their own interests.

We should ignore the cant and focus on clear examples of criminal and terrorist behavior. Murkiness isn’t our ally in the fight against terrorism

Trying to charge a person in court for being too ‘religious’ is impossible — as there is no such criminal charge.

However, if a person kills 25 people in a criminal act (whatever their political or religious views) we can deal with it in the courts in a very clear manner, and it becomes a clearer ‘sell’ to citizens in the court of public opinion — who after all are the ones footing the bill for our military operations in Syria.

Focusing so much attention on such things as the types of bombs employed by any side and by overly focusing on the religious aspect, we remove our focus from the criminality of what ISIS or other fighters are actually doing in Syria, Iraq, and in the Kurdish territories.

(Although it must be said that the Kurds have their own terrorists and they too must be careful when pointing fingers at ISIS, as some Kurds have been at the terrorism game for decades)

I’ll grant you that the Syrian response to ISIS and other groups has been heavy-handed

But no more than Shock and Awe was to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein.

We the West, created the conditions necessary for the creation of ISIS and other similar groups that left Iraq and the Arab Spring nations for Syria and Lebanon upon realizing they couldn’t match coalition firepower.

Now we are picking away at them piecemeal from the air, while the Russians have partnered with President Bashar Al-Assad to preserve the Syrian government with both the Russians and Syrians taking the fight to any group threatening the peace inside Syria until a sustainable cease-fire can be agreed.

If we attempt to exterminate all the ISIS fighters in Syria (with the Russians helping in regions of the country that we can’t access) we will simply drive ISIS fighters to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Egypt and into other Arab nations

Which will allow the West to claim that we’ve ‘won’ in Syria — in the same way we claim to have ‘won’ in Iraq.

Does anyone really think, for an instant, that Iraq is better off now than under Saddam Hussein?

It certainly isn’t. If you believe otherwise, I dare you to travel to any Iraqi city and proclaim it loudly in any public square. (And, by the way, it was nice knowing you)

If a massive (Iraq War style invasion) occurred in Syria today, many ISIS fighters would leave Syria, taking their tales to the people of each country in the region thereby gathering evermore pro-ISIS support and congealing centres of power across the MENA region.

Using military power to exterminate ISIS in Iraq and Syria means that we will set up a paradigm of continual ISIS movement and evermore ISIS recruiting in more countries

Therefore, although we can paint an “X” on certain ISIS members or groups, once we begin to ‘win’ against ISIS in Syria, they will just melt away to other nations gathering evermore support in every city they visit. Just as they did during the Iraq War.

That is not the path to victory against ISIS

In the case of highly mobile fighters and an ideology that we ‘enabled’ by attempting to exterminate ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we will simply help to grow the anti-Western sentiment throughout the Middle East.

The only path to solve the ISIS question is to use diplomacy to convince ISIS of the need for an ISIS homeland (a piece of very northwestern Iraq and very northeastern Syria) and that we are willing to help make that happen in exchange for laying down their arms.

ISIS presents a case where the more we fight (an ideology) the more members it will attract. And that is something the world doesn’t need.