- The road to nowhere: Manbij, Turkey, and America’s dilemma in Syria Aaron Stein, War on the Rocks
- The U.S. and Turkey Scott Sumner, EconLog
- The Kurdish issue in Turkey Barry Stocker, NOL
- Is nationalism obsolete? Rachel Lu, the Week
- The Russian view of Syria and Israel Michael Koplow, Ottomans and Zionists
- It’s time to end one-size-fits-all approach to aid Seth D. Kaplan, American Interest
- How the Syrian protests spiraled into savagery Ian Birrell, Spectator
- Historians can’t seem to catch up to urbanization Michael Goebel, Aeon
- The West’s bombing of Syria meets some approval from Muslims Bruce Clark, Erasmus
- Should the Italian Prime Minister support the Democrats? Michelangelo Landgrave, NOL
- The ugliness of international politics Edwin van de Haar, NOL
- Rent-Seeking Rebels of 1776 Vincent Geloso, NOL
- Between property and liability Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
- National Health Service S.O.S. James Meek, London Review of Books
- Life lessons from reading Thucydides and hiking at night Miguel Monjardino, City Journal
- Blowing stuff up John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
- Syria’s humanitarian disaster is fast becoming a global crisis Bob Seely, CapX
- Trump is celebrating torture, not tolerating it Andrew Sullivan, Daily Intelligencer
- The brutal legacy of childhood trauma Junot Díaz, New Yorker
- Which countries get the most sleep? James Tozer, 1843
- Skripal Case Descends into a Propaganda War der Spiegel
- American options in the face of Turkish-YPG crisis Burak Kadercan, War on the Rocks
- Syria’s Nuclear Program Was Always a Doomed Idea Robert Farley, National Interest
- How George HW Bush dodged death by cannibalism in WWII Jennifer Wright, RealClearLife
Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East that the United States has bombed or put boots on the ground in: Iraq and Syria.
Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East that the United States has threatened to bomb and possibly invade: Iran.
Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East that the United States is allied with: Turkey.
Three of the four countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East are (or was, in the case of Iraq) considered hostile to the US government, so the use of Kurds to further American Realpolitik in the region is almost obvious, until you consider that Turkey has been a longtime ally of Washington.
Suppose you’re a big-time Washington foreign policy player. Do you arm Kurdish militias in Syria, encourage continued political autonomy in Kurdish Iraq, finance Kurdish discontent in Iran, and shrug your shoulders at Istanbul? Seriously, what do you do in this situation?
- Are there “hidden taxes” on women in the US? | Do risk preferences account for some of the gender pay gap?
- The Military Origins of Urban Prosperity in Europe | Rules of warfare in pre-modern societies
- What is the War Powers Act of 1973, and why does it matter? | Thinking about libertarian foreign policy
- American and Russian soldiers are shooting at each other in Syria | Why care about Syrians?
- State decay and “patchwork” | Laws, Juridification, and the Administrative State
- Conservatives and their contempt for detail in governance | Fascism Explained
- No, fascism can’t happen here (in the US) | The Gradual, Eventual Triumph of Liberty
- It’s not gerrymandering if it benefits Democrats Aaron Bycoffe, FiveThirtyEight
- Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you Rod Dreher, the American Conservative
- Planting trees beneath Turkish bombs in Syria Matt Broomfield, New Statesman
- In the long run we are all dead Charles Goodhart, Inference
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.
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.
What has been widely feared is about the happen, it seems. President Assad’s troops, supported by the Russians, are winning the battle over Aleppo. That is not great from a lot of perspectives. To name just a few: first of all for the civilians, who are killed and bombed continuously. Secondly, the crushing of the rebel forces there means the further weakening of what are ‘natural’ allies of the West, as they are against Assad and against ISIS. Thirdly, this victory (if it all continues this way, of course) strengthens Assad’s position, making it even more unlikely that he will disappear from the scene anytime soon. The only good thing seems to be the further weakening of ISIS.
Like many others, I do not like this development at all. I think Assad is a ruthless murderer of his own people and should therefore be taken to justice, preferably in its most definitive form. I wish the Syrian people all the best and would like them to decide over their own fate in liberty. I also deeply hate ISIS and all that it stands for. And the interference of foreign powers (either Russian, Turkish, Iranian, Western) certainly does not do much good either, although I also think it has been inevitable. Public opinion, perceived and real interests, and the defence of allies all foster these kind of interventions. These are of course just a few of the important variables in an enormously complex war.
So what to do, or aim for, as Western countries? Obviously, most Syrians are better off in a stable situation without war, than with any currently viable alternative. This means that negotiations about cease fires should commence, or at least be fostered, which will then hopefully lead to a permanent settlement. I do not dare to predict how long it will take for this approach to be successful. Yet any alternative is worse. These negotiations, whenever feasible, should have all parties at the table, Assad included. No vetoes against him being part of future talks, as has previously been the case. The man will stay around for a while, and we better get used to the idea. This is surely deplorable, yet inevitable. The situation in Syria shows once again the ugliness of international politics, with very limited roles for international law and justice.
Let it be a lesson for those within the liberal tradition who still think differently.