Mid-Week Reader: The Justice of US Intervention in Syria

I’d like to announce a new weekly series of posts that I will be making: the Mid-Week Reader. Every Wednesday (hopefully), I will post a series of articles that I find interesting. Unlike most ventures in micro-blogging, though,  I will try to make all the articles focus on a specific topic rather than leave you with a random assortment of good articles (which Branden already does so well most weekends). This week’s topic: with Trump bombing Syria last week despite ostensibly being a dove (hate to say I told you so), I give you a series of articles on the justice, historical background, and press reaction to the bombing.

  • Fernando Terson and Bas van der Vossen, who are co-authoring on the topic of humanitarian intervention, each have interesting pieces at Bleeding Heart Libertarians debating the bombing of Syria from the perspective of Just War Theory. Terson argues that it was just, Vossen disagrees.
  • Over at The American Conservative, John Glasser of the Cato Institute has an article arguing that Trump’s invasion is neither legally authorized nor humanitarian.
  • Any discussion of foreign policy is incomplete without Chris Coyne’s classic paper “The Fatal Conceit of Foreign Intervention,” a political-economic analysis of foreign policy which concludes all sorts of foreign intervention are likely to fail for similar reasons that socialist economic intervention fails.
  • As perhaps a case study of Coyne’s analysis, Kelly Vee of the Center for a Stateless Society has an article summarizing the history of United States’ actions in Syria going back to World War II and how it’s gotten us into the current situation.
  • At Vox, Sean Illing interviews CUNY professor of journalism Eric Alterman on how the press fails to critically assess military intervention.

How to take over Syria, Roman edition

While Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government got the lion’s share of the press attention about American involvement in Syria (probably because of the contrast with Obama’s preference for diplomacy despite his “red line” threat), the more important strategic operations have not been discussed as fully. Building upon the successful establishment of two airfields last year, the US has expanded or established bases at crucial locations and begun to attack key targets in the northern part of Syria that show an excellent understanding of the topography and logistics of the region. These developments may be the linchpin in choking off traffic and crippling supply and movement of ISIL, and should contribute to the long-term goal of securing Hasakah and Raqqah provinces. What is interesting in all of this, perhaps due to the historical expertise of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, is that this logistical focus mimics the attack routes that were vital to invasions of the area from Alexander the Great down to Julian the Apostate.

The Euphrates River as an ancient supply highway

In the era of Alexander the Great, supply and communication were important constraints on military action; the logistics of his march through Syria are extremely well described by Donald Engels. Essentially, because of the lack of water sources in surrounding areas, the rough Taurus Mountains to the north and Arabian Desert to the south, and the provisions and easy transport supplied by it, the Euphrates River was a common “highway” for military movement in antiquity. Controlling and utilizing it was essential to control of the trade and military actions between the Mediterranean coast and Mesopotamia. In his defense against Alexander, Darius III kept his army on the Euphrates, and Alexander surprised him by crossing northern Mesopotamia to follow the Tigris River (near Mosul, which ISIL also recognized as vital) instead. However, almost every major invasion of the area from the west has gone through what is now southeastern Turkey to reach the headwaters of the Euphrates, including those of Trajan, Septimius Severus, and Julian the Apostate. Crassus reaped the gruesome rewards of avoiding the Taurus/Euphrates route.

The Euphrates valley was important not only as a military route, but also as a source of agricultural income and a crucial portion of the early Silk Road. Therefore, the nation that controlled the northern Euphrates valley could finance their military through control of trade and taxation (which Zenobia’s husband used to assert his own quasi-independence from a city that ISIL has ironically destroyed), a fact that has changed only in the economic transition from agricultural production to petroleum extraction. Now, ISIL not only taxes and sells oil to support its endeavors, but it knew from the outset to seize strategic locations on the route and even wanted to use the Euphrates river as its logo!

The mountains north of the Euphrates

The famous historian and general, Xenophon, was part of an army that followed the Euphrates down to a fateful battle at Cunaxa, and his retreat through the Taurus Mountains and ancient Armenia involved encounters with natives who were extremely capable in skirmishing on mountainous terrain. Both Xenophon and Mark Antony learned how difficult this route was, and the successful Kurdish defense of the Sinjar mountains and victories in the mountains of northeastern Syria using small arms and mobile forces while conceding villages is reminiscent of these ancient raiding methods. Though bombing obviously differs in technology and methods from ancient infantry, it also involves avoiding direct battle in order to destroy resources and harass enemy armies in motion, and so the American strategies based on assaults from the Rmeilan and Incirlik airfields over the past year have used the same attrition tactics to wear down ISIL strongholds.

What comes next?

If ancient campaigns can tell us anything, it may be that the US is transitioning from bombing from afar to more direct assaults on the cities, roads, and resources of ISIL along the northern Euphrates. The US still holds bases in northwestern Syria, defending the western flank of Kurdish-controlled territory and providing a buffer to Turkey (which, along with Turkish efforts to stop individual penetration of the border, should mitigate ISIL recruitment and international travel). Now that it has augmented this by creating bases that choke off routes to the headwaters of the Euphrates and allow closer engagement with ISIL since January, the US seems to be poised to contain ISIL attacks with greater alacrity and support Kurdish ground assaults on the ISIL capital of Raqqa. The escalation may be as support in the race to Raqqa and to take advantage of victories in eastern half of the campaign in Mosul, and comparison to the campaigns cited above would indicate that the US and Kurds are moving much slower than ancient campaigns, but using the same routes, attacking targets in similar ways, and with the same respect for topography and logistics.

Gun Control Works Just Fine in France

In semi rural Normandy, in France, a mass is interrupted by two young men who speak Arabic among themselves. They force the aged priest to kneel. They demand that some of the faithful present video the next scene. Then they cut off the priest’s head with a long knife. They don’t shoot him!

After this, they take several people hostage, injuring one seriously and they attempt to escape. The police are waiting for them outside and shoot the decapitators dead.

In this true story, only the police had guns just like liberals and President Obama want it to be the case in the US. The murderers almost did not commit their crime because they only had one gun that was not even functional, almost didn’t.

ISIS quickly claimed the crime as committed by some of its “soldiers” (brave soldiers, murdering an eighty-year old priest). One of the dead assassins was immediately identified as a local young man. He was on electronic bracelet parole after being arrested in Turkey and sentenced for trying to join Islamic State. The French authorities don’t joke when it comes to terrorism!

The main French imam condemned the crime immediately and in the most vigorous terms. He did not comment on the mode of the assassination, beheading. He did not speculate whether this could have some cultural resonance for some Muslims, given that the Prophet Mohamed himself demonstrated a certain preference for beheading as a way to dispatch his enemies. (References on request.)

The French are brain frozen. No one in France has wondered publicly about what would have happened if one of the faithful at mass had carried a hidden handgun.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Sectarianism and the New Shiism
  2. Why Islamic State Militants Care So Much About Sykes-Picot
  3. The Bullshistory of “Sykes-Picot”
  4. Never Alone: Let’s Retire the Word “Isolationism”
  5. Morals and the Free Society: On Cultural Group Selection
  6. The Creeping Militarization of American Culture

“If we have to choose between ISIS and Assad…”

 

…we’ll take ISIS. ISIS has flatbed trucks and machine guns. Assad represents the strategic arch from Tehran to Beirut, 130,000 rockets in the hands of Hezbollah, and the Iranian nuclear program.

That’s from Michael Oren, a prominent Israeli lawmaker and a former ambassador to the United States. I got the quote from an excellent bit of reporting in the Wall Street Journal by Yaroslav Trofimov on the Syrian war as viewed by the Israelis. (Read the whole thing.)

ISIS isn’t a privatized security force per se, but it is definitely a denationalized one. So the Israelis, or at least one prominent faction of Israelis, prefer ISIS to Assad. The big question, though, is whether or not people in what is presently called “Syria” are better off under ISIS (a non-state actor) or under a pseudo-state that is inevitably going to be governed by a strong man…

Asking the Wrong Question

How do the United States and others achieve victory against Islamic State without empowering sectarian actors who will seek to poison the reconciliation that Iraq needs to hang together?

That’s the question posed by Craig Whiteside, an associate Professor of Theater Security Decision Making for the Naval War College at the Naval Postgraduate School, over at War on the Rocks. Dr Whiteside’s recommendations (“avoid all cooperation with sectarian militias, continue to target Islamic State with minimal collateral damage, patiently train and equip the security forces, ensure it’s done by Iraqis with subtle, behind the scenes help”) are just what you’d expect from a military strategist with a PhD, but his question highlights well what’s wrong with current thinking on non-state actors in Washington and also explains why central planning fails in areas other than managing an economy.

Whiteside’s line of thought is pretty standard, and it goes something like this: Islamic State is bad and Iraq is good. Islamic State is bad not because it lawlessly slaughters more people than Iraq (obviously not true, especially when you account for the Hussein regime), but because it is a non-state actor with political, economic, cultural, and military capabilities that threaten the existence of state actors. Hence his worry over how to defeat Islamic State while still keeping Iraq in one piece.

This is a terrible way to think about international relations and strategy, and it governs the logic of the republic’s finest thinkers.

Why not think about the situation in the Levant in the following way instead:

There is a “world order” of sorts that is composed of states. The states themselves have been patched together over the course of centuries. The world order itself has been patched together over the course of centuries.

Iraq is a state that was patched together by the UK and France, in accordance with the logic of the world order at the time. Thus, Iraq was able to become a legitimate member of organizations like the UN, FIFA, OPEC, etc. However, because Iraq was patched together by the world order rather than by the people of Iraq (acting through contentious factions), it can only, ever “hang together” under a regime governed by a strong man.

The appearance of Islamic State in what is now Iraq is just an attempt by Iraqis to govern themselves. Islamic State is an attempt, made possible by the power vacuum left by the invasion and occupation of the US and its allies, to join the world order (hence the “state” in Islamic State). It’s a horrible attempt, which is just what you’d expect from a people who have likely never had a chance to experiment in self-governance. Nevertheless, people in what is now Iraq are trying to patch together their own states.

The world order should recognize these attempts instead of trying to maintain the status quo. Change can be a good thing. As an example, just compare the brutality of the Hussein regime, a legitimate state actor, with that of Islamic State. It’s not even a contest, especially in terms of people murdered.

Wouldn’t recognizing Whitehead’s “sectarian actors,” instead of seeking to isolate or destroy them, be a much better avenue to peace and prosperity in the region? Recognition by the world order, haphazardly and pragmatically patched together itself, would bestow responsibility onto non-state actors. It would signal a trust in the ability of Iraqis to govern themselves. It would help to rationalize diplomacy and trade in the region. And it would put an end to the vicious cycle of strong men in the Middle East.

Instead of asking what the US and its allies can do to eliminate violent non-state actors from the region, isn’t it time to start asking what the West can do, as equal partners, to facilitate more self-governance in the Levant?

That central planning suffers from a knowledge problem is a given in many elite economics circles today (even economists at the Federal Reserve recognize it), but I don’t think this argument has extended into other fields of thought or other bureaucracies yet. A fatal conceit indeed.

What’s the difference between Saudi Arabia and Islamic State?

One has captured the rent associated with being a state in the post-World War II world order. This means that one of these polities gets to build embassies in other states. It gets to participate in congresses. It gets to fly its flag at the United Nations and has access to the World Bank, military hardware markets (“for defense”), and FIFA tournaments.

Rent capture isn’t all good, of course. There are still costs. When Saudi Arabia beheads people, for example, it gets condemned internationally. Its reputation suffers. It has to repair relationships and launch rigorous public relations campaigns. Saudi Arabia has to do these things because if it looks intransigent to enough of its fellow states, there might be official repercussions for its actions. Saudi Arabia can’t just go around killing and looting and raping at will. It has to formalize its killing, looting, and raping through the international order by coming up with a national interest. (A national interest is also important for shoring up domestic support for such activities.)

But incorporating Islamic State into the international order is unfathomable. It’s an immoral action rewarding an immoral pseudo-polity. Besides, the sovereignty of the states of Iraq and Syria would be violated and their borders destroyed. It’s better to just keep bombing the region Islamic State claims to govern and arming the factions that claim to be its enemies. That’s been our policy towards the post-colonial world since 1945 and, while imperfect, it’s been working out well so far…