Daniel Larison

A Close Call in Syria

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A recent incident in Syria shows how easily U.S. involvement in the conflict could escalate:

The Pentagon warned the Syrian government Friday not to strike U.S. and coalition personnel in Syria, a day after the regime carried out airstrikes in an area near American special operations forces, prompting the U.S. to scramble jets to protect them.

The U.S. jets arrived just as the two Syrian government Su-24 bombers were departing, according to Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis, who said none of the U.S. forces on the ground were harmed.

The Syrian government bombers had been striking Kurdish positions near the city of Hasakah, where the U.S. has been backing Kurdish forces in the fight against Islamic State.

Fortunately, this episode didn’t lead to a clash with the Syrian government, but a future one very well might. When the U.S. backs proxies in a foreign civil war and puts U.S. forces on the ground with them, it opens the door to new and unexpected conflict with other armed groups in the country. By extending protection to U.S. proxies in Syria, the U.S. could find itself drawn into yet another conflict in Syria. Anti-regime groups would have a strong incentive to put the U.S. in that position. The more U.S. forces that are sent into the country, the greater the chances of an incident that could lead to a wider war, and Clinton is on record in favor of sending more special forces into Syria. This episode underscores the absurdity of the administration’s many statements that U.S. forces aren’t in combat in Syria, and it reminds us how quickly a supposedly “limited” intervention could spiral into something much worse.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Ending endless war. Andrew Bacevich makes some suggestions for how the U.S. could break the habits of perpetual war.

The U.S. is promoting war crimes in Yemen. Trevor Timm chastises the Obama administration for its role in enabling the Saudi war on Yemen.

Yemen talks at a standstill. Peter Salisbury sets out some proposals for reviving stalled diplomatic talks between the warring sides in Yemen.

America is complicit in the carnage in Yemen. The New York Times calls on the Obama administration to stop supplying weapons to the Saudis.

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In Response to Indiscriminate Saudi Bombing, MSF Evacuates Northern Yemen

UN OCHA / Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

Things are getting even worse for the civilian population of Yemen as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announces that it is pulling its staff and medical personnel out of northern Yemen following the latest bombing of one of their hospitals there earlier this week:

Doctors Without Borders announced on Thursday that it’s withdrawing from northern Yemen due to what the international aid group called “indiscriminate bombings and unreliable reassurances” from the Saudi-led coalition that’s fighting Shiite rebels in the country.

The group, known by its French acronym MSF, said an attack on a hospital it supported in the area on Monday had killed 19 people and wounded 24 — a higher death toll after some of the wounded had died. Earlier, 11 were reported killed.

“The airstrike on Abs Hospital was the fourth and the deadliest attack on an MSF-supported medical facility during this war, while there have been numerous attacks on other health facilities all over Yemen,” the Geneva-based group said in a statement.

This is another devastating blow to the people living in northern Yemen. Not only have the Saudis and their allies grossly and repeatedly violated international law with their bombing of civilian targets for well over a year, but they have struck so many hospitals that they are now forcing a major aid group out of the area. That deprives injured and sick Yemenis of essential medical care that is made all the more necessary by the frequent indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas by the coalition, and it further cuts off this part of Yemen from an outside world that was already mostly ignoring its plight. The next time that the Saudis bomb a school or a residence or a factory or some other building filled with noncombatants in this part of the country, the wounded won’t be able to rely on MSF’s help. It needs to be stressed that this is not MSF’s fault. The blame lies squarely with Riyadh, its allies, and its Western patrons that have committed and enabled the crimes that prompted this decision. Doctors Without Borders were put in an impossible situation by the reckless and criminal behavior of the Saudi-led coalition, and have understandably refused to wait around for the next “accidental” bombing of one of their facilities.

Trevor Timm excoriates the administration for its role in making the Saudi-led bombing campaign possible:

The fact that the Obama administration has allowed the Saudis to continue committing war crimes should be a full-fledged scandal. Officials should be resigning over this and shouting from the rooftops. Instead, for months, we’ve heard almost nothing from the administration beyond a couple boilerplate, lukewarm expressions of “concern” as the death toll has mounted over a year and a half. Finally, after prodding from reporters last week, the US state department condemned the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders (AKA Médecins sans Frontières) hospital that killed at least 15 people. But then, the state department spokesman refused to say whether the US would stop supplying the Saudis with the weapons they are using.

Perhaps MSF’s decision will draw more attention to the catastrophe unfolding in Yemen, and perhaps that will prompt more criticism of the administration’s indefensible policy of support for this war. I hope that is the case, but in the meantime the people of Yemen, and especially northern Yemen, are in even greater danger than before.

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Attacking Syria Is Still a Terrible Idea

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Nick Kristof has written another column calling for direct U.S. intervention in Syria:

Agreed, we shouldn’t dispatch ground forces to Syria or invest a trillion dollars. But why not, as many suggest, fire missiles from outside Syria to crater military runways and ground the Syrian Air Force?

One reason not to do that is that it isn’t legal for the U.S. to attack another state that hasn’t done anything to us or our treaty allies. The U.S. has neither the authority nor the right to do what Kristof wants to do. That’s not even the most important reason not to do this, but it is a pretty significant objection that is never addressed by advocates of “action.” It seems fairly telling that things like this never occur to supporters of this or that intervention. They tend to think that the burden of proof is on the people that don’t want their government to attack other countries, when the burden of proof is always on those that propose military action.

The practical problem with cratering runways is that it is at best a stopgap “solution.” As Marc Lynch observed three years ago, “Cratering runways might work for a few hours, but then Bashar al-Assad will repair them.” When that proves to be inadequate, it is just a matter of time before there will be demands to “do more,” and whatever that “more” ends up being will inevitably cost more and run greater risks than the advocates of intervention foresee. Advocates for military action in Syria never attempt to address the question, “Then what?” because they haven’t thought that far ahead.

Of course, cratering runways isn’t all that Kristof thinks the U.S. should do. He proposed creating “safe zones” in his previous column, and that does require sending in ground forces to protect them. Who will supply those forces? It will almost certainly be the U.S. that supplies most or all of them, and it would necessarily be an open-ended commitment. The risks of doing this would be considerable, as the soldiers protecting these “safe zones” would immediately be targets of every jihadist group in the country, and depending on where these zones are created run the risk of clashing with the Syrian government and its allies.

Kristof later allows that “U.S. support for Saudi bombing in Yemen is counterproductive,” which might be the understatement of the year. Even so, he seems to miss that that outside intervention in Yemen had the effect of greatly exacerbating the conflict and inflicting far more death and destruction on the country. At the same time, AQAP has taken advantage of the conflict to become much stronger than it was before the intervention. The question that advocates for Syrian intervention have had to answer for years is this: why is their proposed military action not going to make things in Syria worse in much the same way that intervention made them worse in Yemen (and in many other countries)? They have never had a serious answer for that question and still don’t.

The weakness of Kristof’s case for intervention is reflected in his constant recourse to a peculiar sort of whataboutism, asking whether it was wrong for Clinton to intervene in Kosovo and whether Obama was wrong to start bombing ISIS in Iraq in 2014. I happen to think the answer in both cases is yes, but even if military action was right in those other places and times it doesn’t mean that it has ever made sense to attack the Syrian government. It’s still a terrible idea, and nothing Kristof has said in the last week has changed that.

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Yemen: The Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World

IRIN Photos/Flickr: The UN-administered camp at Mazrak, north-west Yemen, seen on 12 November 2009 is now stretched beyond capacity after a Saudi military offensive against the Huthis starting early November uprooted a fresh wave of IDP families.

Scott Paul of Oxfam recently visited Yemen and testifies about what he saw there. You should read all of it, but I’ll quote the concluding paragraph here:

There are more people in need of humanitarian assistance in Yemen than anywhere else in the world, but thanks to the relatively small number of refugees fleeing the country and the difficulty of entry for journalists, most people – even policy experts and government officials – aren’t able to relate to the scale of suffering there [bold mine-DL]. As I left Sana’a, I couldn’t help but think that the international community’s approach to Yemen would be markedly different if world leaders were able to see what I saw. For a start, they would urgently help stabilize Yemen’s Central Bank, remove restrictions on the transport of hard foreign currency out of the country, and enact a new Security Council Resolution demanding peace. For its part specifically, the US government would withdraw its support for the parties fighting this cruel and unnecessary war.

This is something that I have tried to emphasize in as many of my posts on the war as possible: the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen is the worst one in the world today, and it is among the worst disasters of its kind in decades. Tens of millions are in serious need of food, and they have mostly been driven to this point by the coalition’s blockade. This is a massive crisis, and one that didn’t have to happen. It is all the more severe because it is not receiving the publicity that other crises have, and because the international response to it has been limited and woefully inadequate.

I would like to think that the main reason so few people pay attention to the suffering of Yemen is simply lack of information, but that can’t really excuse the behavior of major governments including our own. The Obama administration had no confidence that the Saudis and their allies’ intervention would succeed, but backed it anyway to satisfy them. Our government knows as well as anyone what the coalition is doing to the people of Yemen because they are helping them to do it. U.S. complicity in wrecking Yemen isn’t the result of a lack of knowledge about what the war is doing to the civilian population, but rather the indifference born of a desire to keep despotic client states happy.

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Yes, Clinton Is a Hawk, and It’s Silly to Deny It

Gage Skidmore

Matt Yglesias’ post on Clinton and foreign policy doesn’t make much sense:

But despite the fears of her left-wing critics, Clinton is no neocon. Nor is there really much evidence to back up a broad-brush notion that Clinton is especially “hawkish” in a generic sense. Clinton’s record overwhelmingly reflects continuity, for better or for worse, with longstanding aspects of American foreign policy [bold mine-DL].

Critics of the status quo will find plenty to dislike, but there’s no reason to believe her administration would represent any kind of dramatic departure in foreign policy — not just in the Middle East but around the world.

It’s not credible to say that there isn’t much evidence for Clinton’s hawkishness. In almost every case for the last twenty years, Clinton has reliably sided with those favoring more rather than less aggressive measures in response to foreign conflicts and crises. She did this during her husband’s administration (“I urged him to bomb” [Kosovo]), she did it as a senator with her Iraq war authorization vote, and she did it as Secretary of State (see Libya, Syria, etc.). Unlike many presidential nominees, Clinton has not shied away from her hawkish record as a candidate. During the primaries, she touted the Libyan war as “smart power at its best” and as I mentioned earlier this week she has made no secret of her support for “no-fly” and “safe” zones in Syria that would entail a significant increase in the U.S. military role in that country.

It is true that Clinton isn’t a neoconservative and sometimes disagrees with Republican hard-liners on certain foreign policy issues, but she assuredly is a liberal hawk and has favored every military intervention the U.S. has undertaken for the last twenty years (and some that it hasn’t yet done). That isn’t at odds with her support for the foreign policy status quo. It is a direct product of it. No one argues that she would represent a “dramatic departure” from the status quo. That’s the whole point of the criticism of her record: we know she won’t depart from the status quo, including Washington’s habit of forcibly intervening in the affairs of other countries and an irrepressible urge to “shape” events on the other side of the world. This is so obvious that I don’t quite understand why some liberal writers even bother trying to deny it. There are undoubtedly hard-liners in the U.S. that are even more hawkish than Clinton, but that doesn’t mean that Clinton isn’t a hawk. You have to pretend not to understand what the label means to argue that it doesn’t apply to her.

She has carried out policies of diplomatic engagement under Obama that as a presidential candidate she had mocked as naive and pointless, but it doesn’t follow that she would pursue similar policies as president. But I don’t think anyone believes that she would have pressed for a nuclear deal with Iran as Obama did, and had she won in 2008 I doubt very much that any engagement with Iran would have happened at all. Since foreign policy was largely concentrated in the White House during the first term, it’s also a stretch to credit Clinton for first-term policies that were usually conceived of and designed by others. Yglesias even tries to claim that she “has generally stood by Obama’s reluctance to provide lethal assistance to the Ukrainian military,” but last year she called for more military aid for Ukraine:

“I do think we should do more to help Ukraine defend its borders,” she said. “New equipment, new training for the Ukrainians. The United States plus NATO have been very reluctant to do that, and I understand it completely because it’s a very sticky, potentially dangerous, situation. But I think the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian civilians who’ve been fighting against the separatists have proven that they’re worthy of some greater support.”

I think this is a bad position, and presumably liberal hawks think it’s fine, but this is Clinton’s position and it is not the same as current administration policy.

We know that in every internal administration debate Clinton was on the side of those favoring more aggressive measures whenever there was a question about initiating or escalating a conflict or sending weapons to one of the sides in an ongoing war. Since leaving the State Department, Clinton has typically sided with those calling for the U.S. to “do more” militarily in different parts of the world, and as far as we know she hasn’t seen a proposed U.S. military action in the last two decades that she thought was unwise or unnecessary. Of course Clinton is a hawk, and it is silly to pretend otherwise.

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Stop U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

usa saudi arabia yemen flags

The New York Times calls on the Obama administration to stop arming the Saudis and their allies:

Mr. Obama has also supplied the coalition such indispensable assistance as intelligence, in-flight refueling of aircraft and help in identifying appropriate targets. Experts say the coalition would be grounded if Washington withheld its support. Instead, the State Department last week approved the potential sale of $1.15 billion more in tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia to replace items destroyed in the war. Congress has the power to block this sale; Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, says he is discussing that possibility with other lawmakers. But the chances are slim, in part because of the politics.

Given the civilian casualties, further American support for this war is indefensible. As Mr. Murphy told CNN on Tuesday: “There’s an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen.”

I agree with all this, but I would add that U.S. support for the war was always indefensible because the war was unnecessary and reckless. The Saudis and their allies were not defending themselves when they starting bombing Yemen, and no U.S. interests were being served by helping them attack their neighbor. The war on Yemen has been a wanton, unprovoked attack on one country by a group of others, and the U.S. has helped make it possible. The careless and criminal way that the bombing campaign has been conducted has made things even worse, but the U.S. would have been wrong to enable the Saudi-led campaign in any case.

It should be clear by now that the Saudis and their allies “do not care about killing innocent civilians,” which shouldn’t come as much of a shock to anyone considering that the coalition includes the likes of Sudan. The coalition made this clear when they illegally declared all of Saada a military target and they proved it again when they dropped cluster bombs in civilian areas. The quick succession of outrageous bombings of civilian targets in the last few days has been a sharp reminder of what the Saudis and their allies have been routinely doing during the last sixteen months. I hope it does finally spur more criticism of and opposition to U.S. support for the war, and perhaps these latest attacks have received enough attention that the administration won’t be able to avoid scrutiny for its terrible role in this intervention.

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Using Trump to Troll Realists

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Dan Drezner has another suggestion for realists:

Realism has important and useful things to say about how to conduct American foreign policy. If the keepers of that paradigm want to be heard after this election cycle, they need to publicly distance themselves from Trump as soon as possible.

It’s not clear why this still needs to be done when numerous realists have explicitly denounced Trump in no uncertain terms or otherwise explained why his views should not be confused with theirs. I’m not a realist myself (though I’m often mistaken for one), but I have made much the same argument more than once. Realists and others sympathetic to their arguments have made this point again and again throughout the campaign, but somehow it still isn’t enough.

When people have rejected the claim that Trump is a realist in the past, Drezner has objected and chided realists that they should get on board the Trump bandwagon if they want to have more influence in foreign policy debates. “When will realists endorse Trump?” he asked back in February. Now he wonders when they will sign a letter denouncing him. Make up your mind.

When realists say that Trump isn’t one of them, Drezner has said they aren’t opposed to him for “realist reasons.” Now that Trump is on track for a general election debacle, Drezner is telling realists that they should get as far from Trump as they can (which they have been doing for months) if they want their ideas to avoid being discredited in the process. One might conclude from this that Drezner just wants to use Trump’s candidacy to troll realists any way he can, so that no matter which way they go he can find fault with their actions. Besides, realists aren’t rejecting Trump out of some calculation that it will get their arguments a more positive reception in the future (they know that won’t happen anyway). They’re doing it because they genuinely find Trump’s views appalling and contrary to their own.

If realism has “important and useful things” to say about how to conduct U.S. foreign policy (and I agree that it does), it will continue to do so regardless of how vocal realists are in their rejection of Trump. The point that needs to be stressed here, however, is that most realists have already publicly stated their opposition to him to one degree or another. They have made plain to anyone willing to listen that they don’t accept the superficial interpretation of Trump’s worldview that tries to conflate his preference for plundering foreign countries with a reputable foreign policy tradition committed to securing the national interest. They have no further need to distance themselves publicly from Trump because they already did so months ago. For that matter, they already were quite distant from him so long as their arguments weren’t caricatured or reduced to a crude and simplistic distortion of what they actually believe.

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Our Indefensible War in Yemen

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana'a, May 2015

Bruce Riedel reviews the situation in Yemen:

The losers in the war are of course the Yemeni people. More than half the twenty-five million people are malnourished. Many are dislocated. Children are at greatest risk. The war gets almost no mention in the American media, but it’s our war [bold mine-DL].

If anything, this understates the damage that has been done. The many displaced internally are well over two million people, and half of the people described as malnourished are on the brink of famine. Thousands and thousands of children are dying or will die from preventable diseases. The starvation of a huge part of the civilian population is largely due to the coalition blockade supported by the U.S., and the aid that does get into the country cannot be easily distributed because of fuel shortages and the devastation of the country’s infrastructure from the bombing campaign that our military facilitates. Just this past week, the coalition destroyed a vitally important bridge needed to bring food into the capital:

Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, Oxfam Yemen Country Director, said: “This road is the main supply route for Sanaa as it conveys 90% of World Food Program food coming from Hodeidah to the capital. Its destruction threatens to leave many more people unable to feed themselves, worsening an already catastrophic situation in the country.”

The Saudi-led, U.S.-backed intervention has created a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen that is at least as severe as any other crisis in the world. The situation in Yemen is arguably much worse than any other comparable humanitarian crisis because it is being so badly neglected and the international response to Yemen’s dire need has been so paltry. Relatively few people outside the region are aware of the crisis, even fewer understand how severe it is, and even fewer are motivated to provide aid, and the lack of attention to the war and its effects reinforces this indifference. Millions of people are at very real risk of starving to death so that the Saudis and their allies can indulge their delusions about combating Iranian influence, and the Saudi-led coalition is encouraged and enabled to do this with U.S. weapons, fuel, and intelligence provided by the Obama administration. On the rare occasions when administration officials are pressed to explain why the U.S. is doing this, they simply lie about the conflict and almost no one notices.

I suppose one could call our policy in Yemen “committing war crimes from behind”: the U.S. doesn’t directly commit any of the crimes, but it wouldn’t be possible for the Saudis and their allies to keep waging the war and committing their war crimes without our government’s assistance. Hardly anyone here at home notices our government’s role in all this because it is so rarely reported, it is scarcely criticized in major media outlets when it is mentioned, and it seems to hold no interest for most of our representatives in Congress. That’s how our government can facilitate a disaster that threatens the lives of millions of people without paying even the smallest political price.

U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen illustrates much of what’s worst in our foreign policy. We see the usual reflexive deference to bad clients and the uncritical backing of their worst behavior. We recognize the dishonest spin that the clients’ aggressive actions are being taken in “self-defense” to ward off a threat that doesn’t exist or has been grossly exaggerated. We know only too well the irrepressible urge to take sides and interfere in a foreign conflict that has little or nothing to do with us, and we encounter the all-too-familiar overconfidence in military options to “solve” ingrained political disputes that we don’t really understand. Finally, we confront the callous, total indifference to the suffering of a civilian population when the people endangered by war are on the “wrong” side of a fight.

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A Clinton Win Means An Expanded War in Syria

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Kelley Vlahos reminds us why Clinton is likely to be very hawkish as president:

But every message coming from her surrogates in the media and in the Washington defense establishment has been that she will “lean in” harder in Syria, and whether you want to call it “added ground troops” or something else, everyone in her orbit is calling for expanded U.S. intervention—including personnel and firepower—in the region, even at the risk of confrontation with Russia.

We have good reason to believe this because Clinton and her supporters repeatedly keep saying that this is the kind of foreign policy her administration will have. Clinton has made no secret of her support for “no-fly” and safe zones in Syria, and she has chosen a running mate who shares her views on these issues. While Democrats overall might be divided on Syria policy, the Democratic ticket is not: both nominees favor a more aggressive, militarized U.S. role in the Syrian conflict. That is the policy a Clinton administration is very likely to start implementing next year if, as seems likely, she prevails in the fall. A vote for Clinton is almost certainly a vote for an expanded war in Syria, and the public needs to understand that this is what we will get by entrusting her with the presidency.

Clinton is one of the few candidates in the last century to campaign explicitly on a very hawkish platform while still being favored to win the general election. Even Lyndon Johnson, the last Democratic nominee with foreign policy instincts as aggressive as Clinton’s, knew he needed to portray his opponent as a dangerous warmonger while presenting himself as the responsible alternative. By contrast, Clinton has done almost nothing to allay concerns that she is too ready to resort to using force, because she sees no need to do so. She attacks Trump for being ignorant and irresponsible, but she can’t credibly paint him as more likely to get the U.S. into a war when that is precisely what she has done and is ready to do again. She is also so confident of victory in November that she doesn’t think she has to make any concession to her critics on the left. She is winning the support of many prominent Republicans because they have confidence in her desire to exercise American “leadership” by bombing other countries and otherwise meddling in their affairs, and their confidence is not misplaced.

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