Saudis bomb Sanaa during “Million-Person march”

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Houthi Ansarullah Movement that controls most of north and west Yemen staged what was by all accounts an enormous demonstration in the capital of Sanaa on Saturday. It may have been the single largest demonstration in the country’s history. While it was unlikely actually to have involved a million people, it did probably tens of thousands, and it showed how strong grassroots support for the Houthis is in the north.

The massive demonstration in Sab`in Park in downtown Sanaa was intended to send a signal to Saudi Arabia and its coalition that the Houthis are enormously popular in the north and that the General People’s Congress, the parliament of Yemen in its present form, shares in that popularity.

If so, Saudi Arabia did not get that message. Its fighter-bombers targeted downtown Sanaa in the midst of the demonstration, which arguably was a war crime (you aren’t allowed to endanger large numbers of civilians in war if you don’t have to). The Saudis are at war with rebel supporters of the Houthis, whom Saudi Arabian inaccurately depicts as a cat’s paw of Iran.

The Houthis are a fundamentalist movement growing out of the moderate Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam in north Yemen. They were one of the groups that supported the Yemeni revolution of 2011-2012, which deposed ‘president for life’ Ali Abdullah Saleh. But during the transition to elected governments, the Houthis derailed the country’s move to democracy by making a coup and gradually dismissing civilian high governing officials.

About a third of Yemenis are Zaidis, but the proportion is much more enormous if we look only at their power base in the northwest of the country. Sunni Aden and some other regions were liberated from Houthi control by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (plus Morocco and Jordan).

The Saudi-led group has bombarded Yemen intensely for the past year, knocking out key infrastructure and killing or endangering the civilian population.

One Houthi spokesman said that the crowds in the square had sent a message to Saudi Arabia and its allies, that the Houthis are here to stay and retain a great deal of popularity.

The indiscriminate Saudi bombing of Yemen and the destruction of civilian infrastructure such as bridges and ports has caused the Obama administration to begin distancing itself from this war. But too late– most Yemenis see the US as behind the GCC effort.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Massive pro-Houthi rally in Yemen | DW News

Juan Cole, “The Idea of Peace in the Qur’an” (Kluge Center Blog)

Juan Cole | Library of Congress | John W. Kluge Center | – –

The past summer I had an appointment at the John W. Kluge Center that allowed for research in the Library of Congress collections, and have written most of a book about peace in the Qur’an or Koran, the Muslim scriptures. This short blog post distills a few pages of that study. – Juan

Posted August 19, 2016 by Jason Steinhauer

The following is a guest post by Dr. Juan Cole, 2016 Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South.

In contemporary debates on the roots of Muslim radicalism and the character of the religion, it is important to go back to the Muslim scripture or Qur’an (sometimes spelled Koran). Like the Bible, the Qur’an has verses about war as well as peace, but those on peace have been insufficiently appreciated.

The Qur’an is believed by Muslims to have been revealed to Muhammad ibn Abdullah, a merchant of Mecca on the west coast of Arabia, between 610 and 632 of the Common Era. Muhammad was one in a long series of human prophets and messengers from the one God, standing in a line that includes Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Each apostle of God, Muslims hold, has reaffirmed God’s oneness and the need to have faith and live a moral life. In each of these religions, adherence to the basics in the Ten Commandments given to Moses is necessary, including avoiding sins such as theft, adultery, and murder.


Perhaps because it arose during a great seventh-century war between the Byzantine and Iranian empires, peace (al-salam) was a profound concern for the Qur’an. An early chapter (97) of the Qur’an comments on the first revelation given to the prophet, in 610, while he was meditating at a cavern at Mt. Hira near Mecca. It speaks of a descent of angels and of the Holy Spirit on the night of power when the revelation was sent down, ending with the verse “And peace it is, until the breaking of the dawn.” This verse identifies the night of revelation, and therefore the revelation itself, with peace. Peace in Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic is not only conceived of as an absence of conflict, but as a positive conception, of well-being. The revelation and recitation of scripture, Chapter 97 is saying, brings inner peace to the believer.

The Qur’an says that Muhammad was sent as a warner to his people and to the world, that the Judgment Day is coming, when people will be resurrected from their graves and judged by God. The good, or the people of the right hand, will go to heaven, while the wicked will be consigned to the torments of hell. Heaven, a repository of human aspirations, is depicted by the Qur’an as suffused by peace. In 50:34, the Qur’an says that the virtuous admitted to paradise are greeted by the angels with the saying, “‘Enter in peace!’ That is the day of eternity.” The Qur’an admits that most of those who will be resurrected are “ancients,” not “moderns, i.e. that most of the inhabitants of heaven will be Jews, Christians and members of other religions. This multi-cultural Muslim paradise is described as lush and verdant, with water flowing and a cornucopia of delights provided. Qur’an 56:25-26 assures the believers, “Therein they will hear no abusive speech, nor any talk of sin, only the saying, “Peace, peace.”

In heaven, Qur’an 56:90-91 promises “And they are among the companions of the right hand, then they will be greeted, ‘Peace be to you,’ by the companions of the right hand.” And 36:54-56 says that after the Resurrection, “The dwellers in the garden on that day will delight in their affairs; they and their spouses will repose on couches in the shade. They will have fruit and whatever they call for. “Peace!” The word will reach them from a compassionate Lord.” Commentators have noted that this verse seems to demonstrate a progression, from delight and repose to the heavenly fruit and finally to the highest level of paradise, where God himself wishes peace and well-being on the saved.

This word comes from the Lord because, in the Qur’an’s view, it expresses his own essence. Qur’an 59:23 discloses that peace is one of the names of God himself: “He is God, other than whom there is no god, the King, the Holy, the Peace, the Defender, the Guardian, the Mighty, the Omnipotent, the Supreme.”

Read the whole thing

Near-War: US Planes almost tangle with Syrian MiGs, which bombed area of US troop Embeds

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The fighting that has broken out between Kurdish YPG fighters and the Syrian Arab Army in Hasaka, northeast Syria, is hardly a new thing. There were clashes in April.

Syria says that the Kurds brought it on themselves by trying to expand into government-held territory.

As the US has deepened its involvement in Syria, this round of fighting could drag the US into war.

The People’s Protection Units or YPG is a Syrian Kurdish militia that now holds large swathes of northern Syria. These leftist Kurds are in conflict with Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and with the fundamentalist rightwing Arab guerrillas such as the al-Qaeda-linked Army of Syrian Conquest and the Saudi-backed Army of Islam.

Since the YPG is the only really reliable ground force willing and able to take on Daesh, the US has allied with it (over the objections of Turkey). Washington has embedded some 200 US troops with YPG units (some were even caught wearing YPG insignia).

In Hasaka and Qamishli, the YPG holds territory adjacent to that held by the army of the Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad doesn’t like the leftist Kurds, whom he considers separatists, but he has bigger problems, and so often the YPG is left alone by the Syrian army, for now.

But the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) maintains that the YPG has been expanding its territory in Hasaka at the expense of Damascus. So, with all the subtlety of a mobster, al-Assad scrambled fighter jets and bombed YPG-held Hasaka.

But if you bomb the YPG, you might well hit an American special operations soldier.

Washington minded, and flew its own jets over Hasaka on Friday, apparently scaring off the Syrian pilots (the Pentagon tried to play this confrontation down).

But this US and coalition intervention could have a long tail. Is the US committing itself to a no-fly-zone over Rojava, the area of Syria on which the YPG wants to erect a mini-state? Arguably, the US no-fly-zone over Iraq helped get us into the Iraq War.

So not only are US troops in danger of being killed by al-Assad’s mad bombers (as tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been) but US pilots are in danger at any moment of going to war in the skies against the Syrian air force.

Me, I think this is a dangerous flashpoint.

I mean, it may blow over. But if al-Assad killed a US soldier operating among the Kurds, can you imagine the storm of feces in Washington? And if it happens once either of the presidential candidates get into office, it could be the Gulf of Tonkin all over again.


Related video:

AFP: “Syria regime pounds Kurdish positions for second day”

Merkel: Migrants did not bring Radical Terrorism to Germany

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a campaign event on Wednesday evening, that there is no relationship between the influx of some one million migrants and refugees into Germany in the past year and the incidents of radical Muslim violence in the country.

She pointed out that Muslim radicalism as a phenomenon pre-existed the rise of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and that even Daesh was there before the refugee crisis. She said that German authorities have been worried about Daesh for some years.

To some extent she blamed social media rather the the influx of refugees.

She said that the right way to deal with domestic terrorism is more state powers and better trained police.

Reuters reports that Merkel said that forms of Islam compatible with the constitution are welcome in Germany:

“”We have said clearly that an Islam that works and lives on the basis of the constitution … belongs to Germany . . .”

About half of Germans agree with her. And what is remarkable is that you have the head of state talking in this clear-eyed and generous way about people who have lost everything and sought a better life. It is hard to imagine a US politician of Merkel’s level openly speaking out this way. Of course her party may suffer for it at the polls– we have yet to see. But Merkel is not backing down.

Merkel has long insisted that Islam belongs to Germany. I pointed out 18 months ago that this assertion is historically true.

If Germans did not want Islam to belong to Germany, they shouldn’t have gone out and subjugated e.g. Tanzania in the 19th century (although a mixed society it has a strong Muslim community). There was also German colonialism in West Africa, where there were also Muslims. If you go out an incorporate people into your empire, they belong to you whether they or you like it or not.

I wrote:

“Some 57% of Germans say in polls that they feel threatened by Islam. A country of 80 million, Germany has 4 million Muslims, 2/3s of them Turks. About half of these Turks of Muslim heritage, however, hail from the Alevi Shiite minority in Turkey, and many Alevi families became secular leftists in the 1960s and 1970s. So most Turkish Muslims are not interested in Sunni fundamentalism. Moreover, only about half of resident Muslims are citizens, so they are not in a position to ‘Islamize’ anything, even if they wanted to– which most do not. In polling, Germans give unrealistically high estimates of how many Muslims they think there are in the country.

Germans have very small family size and the country is projected to fall from 80 million to only 60 million by 2050, thus falling behind France, which is growing through immigration. Merkel’s government appears to favor emulating the French policy, encouraging immigration, to avoid Germany losing its economic and demographic leadership role in Europe”.

Besides, there was radical terrorism of leftist and rightist varieties in Germany in the twentieth century and it was far more deadly than the Daesh attacks of today (as horrific and inexcusable as those are). To start the clock on social violence with last year’s arrival of so many immigrants and refugees and then to blame everything on them is ahistorical thinking.


Related video:

Angela Merkel stands by refugee policy after attacks in Germany

Dragon Rising? China seeks Closer military Cooperation with Syria

By Juan Cole | Informed Comment | – –

The Arabic press is reporting that a high Chinese official on a visit to Damascus has announced that Beijing intends to strengthen its military relationship with the current Syrian government. At the same time he affirmed that China would avoid involvement in the civil war. Reuters broke the story in the West.

China has a long history of involvement in Syrian security affairs and is already doing some training of the Syrian military. But Beijing now seems intent on taking the relationship to the next level.

The news comes in the wake of reports that Russia is strengthening its own military ties with Iran and may be flying missions against fundamentalist rebels in Syria from that country.

China and Russia both belong to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which appears to see Iran and Syria as potential strategic assets in its rivalry with the US and NATO. They feel as though NATO stole Libya from them, and are determined to make a stand in Syria. The newspaper of the Chinese military said that Russia’s moves in Crimea and Syria should be studied by Chinese officers. Iran has observer status in the SCO.

The director of the Chinese Central Military Commission’s Office for International Military Cooperation, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, made the remarks after meeting with Fahad Jassim al-Freij, the Syrian Defense Minister.

China’s Global Times quoted Hua Liming, former Chinese Ambassador to Iran, as saying that “China’s position on the Syrian crisis will not change, that is, [it will] allow the Syrians to decide their country’s destiny . . . Intervention from outside can only enlarge the crisis, so China will maintain the relationship with the government and encourage negotiations between different parties.”

The same newspaper said that “Observers said China is worried about the terrorists’ influence on religious extremists in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”

That is, China’s interest in increasing its training of and support for the Syrian Arab Army of the al-Assad regime stems in part from fear of the hundreds of Uyghurs who have gone to join Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) or to follow the al-Qaeda operative Abu Muhammad al-Julani, leader of the Army of Syrian Conquest. They are apprehensive that these fighters will return to Xianjiang in northwest China and spread radicalism. China has about 40 million Muslims. Many are Han Chinese. But in the northwest, about 12 million Turkic Uyghurs live. The government has relocated millions of Han Chinese there to reinforce Beijing’s control, in the face of a small separatist movement. The Western intelligence agencies have been accused of stirring up the Uyghurs, as well.

The Global Times also quoted a professor of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, Zhao Weiming, who suggested that the Syria play is payback by Beijing for perceived US interference in the South China Sea.

Professor Zhao further pointed out that China may see the Syrian civil war as beginning to wind down, given the ceasefire agreement of spring-summer 2016 (and despite its recently unraveling). It might then be an opportune time for China to put down a marker of influence in Syria without risking getting involved in the civil war or in the Iran-Saudi rivalry.


Related video:

RT: “China ‘to provide aid, enhance military training’ in Syria – top army official”

Trump and Extreme Vetting of Muslims

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In an attempt at a foreign policy speech in Youngstown, Ohio, on Monday, Donald Trump attempted to get back to his fearmongering roots by focusing on the threat of ISIL, which he depicted as a hydra-headed menace with tentacles in a range of Western countries including the US.

In fact, Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) is a relatively small organization that has been shrinking in both personnel and territory. It has lost its footholds in Diyala, al-Anbar and Salahuddin provinces in Iraq and a campaign against its remaining stronghold in that country, Mosul, by Kurdish and Shiite forces is now building. It is possible that it will be finished as a holder of territory in Iraq before the November election in the US. Likewise, in Syria, Daesh has just lost Manbij, which sits astride one of its major smuggling routes. It has also lost most of northern al-Raqqa province, the city of Palmyra, and other important real estate. In Libya, its fighters in Sirte have fled the city under US bombardment. As for Sinai, those are mistreated Sinai residents– some of them Bedouin tribes, who have been fighting the Egyptian army for some time and only declared themselves ISIL to gain the benefits of franchising, sort of like a local burger joint putting up golden arches and pretending it is a McDonald’s. The terrorism it has pulled off in Europe has been of the lazy soft-target variety, and while the deaths it has caused have been traumatic and are horrific, the incidents haven’t actually been a challenge to national security anywhere outside the Middle East.

Trump supported the interventions he now condemns, including the Iraq War and the no-fly zone in Libya, so his picture of a Middle East in flames as a result of President Obama’s policies is ignoring his own positions.

Trump said he wanted to ally with Russia against ISIL. De facto, that is an arrangement President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have already worked out.

Having tried to scare people with an ISIL clearly in rapid decline, he went on to bash ordinary Muslims again. He wants to exclude immigrants from “volatile” parts of the world, and wants to exclude those who question gay marriage e.g.

He called for extreme vetting of those admitted. But US visa procedures, unbeknownst to Trump, are already extremely strict. His vague addition of the modifier “extreme” to “vetting” won’t make them more strict.

He said,

“We should only admit into this country those who share our values and respect our people. . . In addition to screening out all members or sympathizers of terrorist groups, we must also screen out any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles – or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law. Those who do not believe in our Constitution, or who support bigotry and hatred, will not be admitted.”

Sharia law is just Muslim religious law, akin to Roman Catholic canon law or Jewish religious law (Halakhah). It isn’t a substitute for the US constitution. Aside from a few countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, it isn’t even part of the constitution of most Muslim countries (Turkey’s constitution is based on that of Switzerland; even Tunisia’s party of the religious right, al-Nahda, declined to push for putting shariah in the Tunisian constitution; etc., etc.)

Would believing in these things religiously make you ineligible to come to the US?

Marriage age for girls of 12

Stoning adulterers to death.

Death penalty for gay sex

Burning at the stake for incest

If so, Trump would actually be excluding fundamentalist Jews from the US. Some American Jews are worried that Trump would exclude Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews from Israel.

Likewise, a lot of Ukrainians, who are also from a volatile part of the world, likely don’t subscribe to some of the values Trump wants to make litmus tests.

Trump hopes for a bounce in the polls via this ugly religious bigotry. I am hoping that Americans are better than that.


Related video:

PBS Newshour: “Trump reveals his national security plan — while Clinton says he doesn’t have one”

Top 5 Ways Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad is a Better American than Trump

Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American woman athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing the hijab or Muslim head-covering, is a fatal complication to Donald Trump’s Islamophobia.

Ms. Muhammad shared in a team bronze medal in the saber competition in fencing at Rio. Trump disguises his bigotry toward Muslims by invoking them in the same breath with immigration, but a majority of the over 1 percent of Americans who are Muslim are citizens. One major group of Muslims, the African-Americans, are much more long-standing Americans than he is.

Trump says there is something the matter with that community because it has a violent fringe, and wants to stop Muslims from coming to the US. But Trump’s ethnic groups, white Presbyterians and Germans, have both been known to have, let us say, a violent fringe, and we don’t ban them from travel to America. Here are some ways Ms. Muhammad is a much more exemplary American than Trump.

1. Trump’s grandfather immigrated to the US, and his mother was Scottish, so he is a hyphenated American. The Muhammad family was kidnapped from Africa, possibly from a Muslim village in Senegal or Nigeria, and brought to North America sometime in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. They’ve been here a damn sight longer than the Trumps and so by Trump’s lights have a better claim on American-ness than the Donald.

2. Her father worked as a policeman. In contrast, Trump cultivates the more violent bikers and white supremacists who hate law enforcement.

3. Her mother worked in special education. Children exposed to Trump’s serial ramblings will need an extra 12 years just to unlearn all the Trumpisms he has put in their heads.

4. Ms. Muhammad makes America proud and defends our diversity. Trump makes us ashamed and attacks people different from himself.

5. The team of which Ms. Muhammad is a part won a bronze medal for the USA at the Olympics in fencing. Trump fired people on a reality show for a few years.


Related video:

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: “Late Show Fencing Challenge: Stephen vs. Ibtihaj Muhammad”

People in Syria’s Manbij Rejoice by Shaving, throwing off Veil as ISIL fighters Flee

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

People in Syria’s norther town of Manbij, now entirely liberated from the rule of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), rejoiced on Saturday. Men shaved their beards (which had been imposed on them by the fundamentalists) and women threw off their burqas (full-face veils) and burned them. The burqa is a Gulf custom, not a Muslim one, and many Muslim countries frown on it, including Egypt. In 2010 it was banned in Syrian schools.

People were also happy in the city that Daesh fighters, who had taken 2,000 hostages, released some of them as they escaped for Jarabulus, the last major border town they hold.

Now the Kurdish militia, the YPG or People’s Protection Units, which forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, faces the problem of encouraging the city population that fled to return. There is also a problem of some covert fighters still being in the city.

Another big problem is that the victorious Kurds may wish to see the Manbij joined to a Kurdish “federal region.” They have dreamed of a Rojava or Kurdish enclave in Syria for decades. With the fall of Manbij, nothing really stops them from declaring Rojava. Some Kurdish sources are saying that it will be announced momentarily.

For now, let’s let people celebrate.


Related video:

Euronews: “Liberation of northern Syrian city of Manbij is major blow to IS”

ISIL fighter number falls to 15,000 as Manbij capture Cuts off Route to Europe

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) |

AP is reporting that Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland maintains that the number of ISIL fighters in Syria and Iraq is in steep decline, having fallen to as little as 15,000, down from 25,000 at the organization’s height.

In Iraq the organization has lost Tikrit, Beiji, Mt. Sinjar, Sinjar, Diyala, Ramadi and Falluja among other cities. In Syria it lost northern al-Raqqa, was pushed out of al-Hasaka, lost Palmyra.

It has lost funding through the bombing or capture of its oil refineries.

The joint Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces backed by US special forces and US and allied air forces has consolidated its control over the key city of Manbij in northern Syria. Nairoz Kobani, spokeswoman for the Women Units of the leftist Kurdish YPG, says that the remaining 150 fighters are fleeing toward Turkey and have taken some 2,000 persons hostage. She said that those fleeing north are mostly foreign fighters from Russia, the Caucasus and North Africa. Local Syrian Daesh fighters just threw down their weapons and melded into the refugee flow pretending to be civilians.

Without Manbij, Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) will find it more difficult to import weapons and foreign fighters to al-Raqqa. Other routes still open to it, such as Jarabulus, are also under pressure and could be the next target of the Syrian Democratic Forces. It is much further to import foreign munitions.

Daesh as a territorial power is coming to a slow end; Daesh as a source of terrorism still has a good long run.

Related video:

Euronews: ” Assaults and air strikes in northern Syria”

Monsters to Destroy: Top 7 Reasons the US could not have forestalled Syrian Civil War

by Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The interventionist temptation, muted since the Iraq imbroglio, is now returning. Sec. Clinton’s team are already talking about taking steps to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from office as soon as they get into the White House. An excellent and principled NYT columnist called the non-intervention in Syria President Obama’s worst mistake.

I understand the impulse. Who can watch the carnage in Syria and not wish for Someone to Do Something? But I beg to differ with regard to US intervention. We forget now how idealistic the rhetoric around the US intervention in Vietnam was. Johnson wanted to save a whole society from the Communist yoke. Our idealist rhetoric can blind us to the destruction we do (the US probably killed 1 to 2 million Vietnamese peasants, recalling Tacitus’ (d. after 117 CE) remark about the Pax Romana, “and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”–atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.)

1. There was no UN Security Council consensus on intervention in 2011 and after, and so no authorization for the use of force. In 2012 at a policy meeting, I pressed a French diplomat whether there wasn’t a way to interdict weapons shipped to the regime (which was using heavy military weapons on peaceful protesters in 2011 and 2012). He said that given the lack of authorization for the use of force, arms-bearing ships headed to Latakia could only be boarded if they were foolish enough to come into the territorial waters of a state willing to take them on (none have). Every time the US intervenes in a country with no UNSC authorization and no issue of self-defense, it further degrades the rule of law. Other countries still cite Bush’s invasion of Iraq as justification for their acts of aggression.

2. Civil wars like that in Syria are forms of micro-aggression. Fighting happens in back alleys and neighborhoods where no outsider understands the terrain. The US had 160,000 troops in Iraq in 2006-2007 when Iraqis fought a civil war that ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from Baghdad and turned it into a Shiite city. So many thousands of people were killed each month that Baghdad police had to establish a morning corpse patrol. If Iraq was occupied and run by Americans but it still had excess mortality of hundreds of thousands, why does anyone think that a much more limited US intervention in Syria could forestall death on this scale? I am a little afraid that the widespread underestimation of civilian excess mortality in Iraq is producing the wrong impression here. Its death toll was similar to that of Syria. I also think it isn’t realized that US troops don’t know the language and can’t tell one player from another unless they are specially trained small special forces units. And, they are targets for suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. When the US troops stopped patrolling major Iraqi cities in summer of 2009 the number of bombings and civilian casualties actually went down, because their patrols had been a target.

3. Short of US troops, people have advocated the establishment of safe zones for displaced civilians. But those zones would not stay safe from regime troops or fundamentalist militias unless they were protected by military force. So safe zones are actually a prescription for the insertion of infantry battalions to guard them. The no-fly-zone over the Kurds in Iraq only worked because the Kurds had a military force, the Peshmerga, that could take advantage of US air cover. Without US military protection on the ground, the so-called safe zones would be car-bombed or subjected to artillery barrages or bombed from the sky.

4. Hillary Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone in Syria was impractical because of no. 1 above– no UNSC authorization for the use of force. Moreover, the Syrian military had good anti-aircraft systems. Unless you bombed all those batteries intensively at the start you’d just be shot down. So a ‘no-fly-zone’ is not a minor intervention but a very major one. Now that the Russian air force is flying in Syria, a no-fly zone for regime planes is completely impractical.

5. I supported the UNSC no-fly zone in Libya in 2011, but was dismayed to find that it soon became a NATO mission and then it soon became replaced by another policy entirely– bombing Tripoli and trying to change the regime. Critics forget that the initial resolution just wanted to protect civilians in places like Zintan from Gaddafi’s helicopter gunships. I perceived that once the no-fly zone was implemented, there were enormous political pressures on NATO generals to achieve a tangible victory– hence the bombing of Tripoli (which isn’t exactly the same as a no-fly zone). Then because the mission was transmogrified into regime change from above, the militias never demobilized. That there were no foreign ground troops was a plus in some ways, but it did also mean that no one was responsible for training a new army and incorporating the militias into it. Despite promising democratic elections, militia demands gradually undermined the civilian government, taking the members of parliament more or less hostage and leading to Libya having two or three governments, each with its own militia backers. And then some fighters declared for Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). So the intervention in Libya went from being a humanitarian one to a method of regime change to having a legacy of civil war. Why exactly would Syria be different?

6. Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal and his regime is known for mass torture of prisoners. It would be better for everyone if he stepped down. But if he were removed abruptly with the help of US airstrikes, then wouldn’t what happened to Libya happen to Syria? What would stop al-Qaeda operative Abu Muhammad al-Julani from sweeping into Damascus and taking over? What would stop Daesh from picking up the pieces in Syria? As horrible as it is to contemplate, a Daesh or al-Qaeda victory in Syria is even worse than regime stability.

7. We can’t trust US intervention because Washington power elites are amoral and have been perfectly willing, under Saudi influence, to back fundamentalist militias. Most of them have the ethnic cleansing of Alawis, Druze, Christians and secular Sunnis on their minds. The CIA is nevertheless using Saudi Arabia as an intermediary to supply them with arms. Washington is also so tied to Tel Aviv that you can’t assume any US intervention in Syria would be for the sake of Syrian civilians. Some US policy makers, including former NSC, have suggested that it benefits the US and its allies to have the Syrian civil war continue. And some US policy-makers favored breaking up Iraq when they were running it. (Partitions just create smaller states that go on fighting with one another; see: South Sudan). Washington elites are also greedy and implemented policies in Iraq aimed at enriching themselves or their buddies. In Syria, they’d be carpetbaggers again.

Americans are practical people and they incorrectly believe that all problems have relatively simple solutions. Contemporary civil wars at the level of back alleys, fought between neighbors of different ethnicities or religions with suicide bombings and Kalashnikovs, are an unsolvable calculus problem. International law can be a hindrance to timely action but flouting it can undermine what little order and norms the international arena has. The US military is far too blunt an instrument to be deployed successfully in this case, and US policy-makers can’t be trusted to do what is good for the Syrians. As bad as things in Syria have been, they would have been as bad or worse if the US intervened more heavily.

(I except the actions taken against Daesh, because they are plausibly self-defense and not condemned by anyone on the UNSC. But the aerial bombardment hasn’t been effective.)

In the 1820s when the Greeks rose up against their Ottoman government, President Secretary of State John Quincy Adams got enormous pressure to intervene on the Greek side. He declined, saying of the USA, “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” We need to get back to that policy and recognize that American wars not fought in self-defense are American imperialism and American quagmires.

The most effective thing anyone has done to tamp down violence in Syria was the Kerry-Lavrov ceasefire of the past spring and early summer. If someone wants an intervention, let’s try to get that one back on track.


Related video:

France24: “War in Syria: Russia says daily ceasefires starting today in Aleppo”