The Syrian Refugee Crisis.

A civil war between the Sunni majority and the Shi’ite minority has been ravaging the Middle East. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, more than four million refugees have fled the country.[1] While many went first to all the surrounding countries (Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq), most went to Turkey. By late 2011, the number of refugees in Turkey reached 7,600. By the end of 2012 the number of refugees in Turkey topped 135,000; the number in Egypt passed 150,000. In summer 2014 the appearance of ISIS in eastern Syria and western Iraq sent the number of refugees soaring. By August 2014 the number of refugees in Turkey reached an estimate 850,000. Then the CrISIS just exploded in the second half of 2014. Western aid workers were decapitated, a Jordanian pilot was burned to death, and Yazidis were enslaved. Huge numbers of Syrians “loaded up the truck and moved to Turkey-ey.” By early 2015, Turkey had 2.1 million Syrian refugees within its borders. Camps expanded and proliferated.

Then, in late summer 2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees suddenly sought to scale the walls of the European Union (EU). More than 300,000 refugees from Syria entered the EU between January and July 2015. It accelerated from there, with 100,000 refugees entering the EU during July 2015. Now hundreds of thousands are pressing their noses against the glass in Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. Media attention has focused on the appalling human suffering in the West.

How did hundreds of thousands of refugees get from camps in southern Turkey to either the Greco-Turkish frontier near Edirne or to the Turkish coast opposite the nearby Greek island of Lesbos? Most of the refugee camps are in Hatay Province in the far south. There is a railroad station in Iskenderun in Hatay province. The line from Iskerderun runs through Adana, Konya, Afyon, and Izmir (Smyrna) to the port of Dikili, on the Aegean. Dikili faces the island of Lesbos, the nearest Greek land. Lesbos has been swamped in refugees crossing from Turkey. How has the Turkish government failed to perceive or resist this huge movement of people? Are the Turks actually trying to organize the movement of refugees from the camps to the coast?

The 100,000 refugees to be taken in by the United States in the next several years seem ridiculous compared to the need. However, the Gulf states have taken in no Syrian refugees. None, nada, zip. They have pitched in a bunch of money to support the refugees. Those sums are piddly compared to what the United States has contributed. The refugee-aid sums provided by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar amount to 60 percent of what the US alone has contributed. In short, the Sunni Arab states aren’t concerned.

The Syrian refugee migration is best understood as part of the larger civil war in the Muslim world between Sunnis and Shi’ites. The Sunni Turks and the Sunni Saudis want the Alawite (a sect of Shi’ism) government of Bashar al-Assad gone. Shi’ite Iran wants the Assad regime to remain in place. How to get the western powers to intervene more effectively against the Assad regime? How about you cause them a bunch of problems? Hence, the refugee crisis.

Western states are deluged in migrants. These refugees are unwelcome in the West. It would be best if they went home. How to get them to go home? We’ll, no one is going home if the Assad government or ISIS is in a position to do them harm. So, get rid of Assad and ISIS. The Sunni states (Turkey, Saudi Arabia) are muscling the West by indirect means to overthrow the Assad regime. The Syrian refugee crisis is an act of aggression against the West by its nominal allies.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refugees_of_the_Syrian_Civil_War

Good enough for government work.

What follows is the sort of quibbling over details that appeals only to scholars. However, historians believe that human affairs are “contingent.” That is, even if humans are storm-tossed in some vast sea of historical processes, the actions that individuals take or do not take always have consequences.

Commenting on the troubles in Yemen and Libya, Professor Daniel Benjamin (US State Department counter-terrorism co-ordinator, 2009-2012, and now a professor at Dartmouth) said that “The forces that drove the Arab Spring [of 2011] were of such enormous dimensions that it’s unrealistic to think any president or any group of leaders could steer these events.”[1] It is possible to take a different view.

For one thing, the “forces that drove the Arab Spring” have been totally mastered. Protests in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, and Somalia all soon ended after largely cosmetic concessions by the authorities.   Something harsher was required in in Egypt and Syria. Under pressure from the crowds in a few urban areas and from the United States, the Egyptian military dictatorship bent but did not break. Now it has reasserted its power, using the threat of Islamism as its justification. Seeing what was happening in Egypt, the far more ruthless Assad government in Syria took a strong line with the urban malcontents.   They malcontents are mostly in refugee camps at the moment. What the Syrians were left with was an uprising among conservative Sunni Muslims who have been joined by a flood of Islamist foreign fighters, just as the insurgency in Iraq attracted hordes of Islamist jihadis. What does Islamism have to do with the American liberal vision of the “Arab Spring”?[2]

For another thing, the United States played an active role in creating the chaos that now engulfs both Libya and Yemen.   The Obama Administration exceeded its mandate from the UN when it expanded its involvement in the Libyan rebellion from protecting civilian lives to toppling the Gaddafi regime through air-power.[3] Then the U.S. walked away when the overthrow of Gaddafi opened a Pandora’s box of troubles. Much more reasonably, the U.S. also supported the initiative by the Saudi-dominated Gulf Co-operation Council to push “president” Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office. Here alone the Americans had a clear goal: to preserve the ability to hunt Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula jihadis.

As the NYT headlined the story in which Daniel Benjamin was quoted, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For.” That’s a modest goal. Not transformative of the entire Middle East. Not a lasting solution to the problem of radical Islam. Not the sort of thing to win someone a Nobel Peace Prize. But manageable within the limits of our power.

[1] Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For,” NYT, 17 June 2015.

[2] See: “Arab Youth,” September 2014.

[3] It also helped poison Russian-American relations. See: “Obama versus Putin,” September 2014.

“Die for Danzig?” Marcel Deat, “Mourir pour Danzig?” L’Oeuvre, 4 May 1939.

Fighting Russia isn’t a very popular idea. Fighting Russia over Ukraine doesn’t have much support in spite of the obvious Russian intervention in the rebellion in eastern Ukraine. But fighting Russia if it attacks a fellow member of NATO seems like a no-brainer. That’s what a military alliance is all about, right? Well, not necessarily.[1]

Back in 1956, in the midst of the Eisenhower administration and at the height of the Cold War, 82 percent of Americans believed that a Russian attack on one member was an attack on all and that the US should fight, while 8 percent opposed it, and 10 percent weren’t sure. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 56 percent of Americans supported using force against Russia if it became involved in a “serious military conflict” with another NATO member state, while 37 percent were opposed, and a mere 7 percent weren’t sure. Among some other NATO countries, support then falls off by small steps. Support for fighting slides down through Canada (53), Britain (49), Poland and Spain (48), France (47), Italy (40), and Germany (38).[2] In Germany, 58 percent opposed fighting Russia, while only 4 percent weren’t sure.

With regard to the conflict in Ukraine, Poland (50 percent) and the United States (46 percent) most strongly support sending weapons to the Kiev government. Thereafter, support declines among other NATO members through Canada (44), Britain (42), and France (40), before falling off sharply in Spain (25 percent), Italy (22) and Germany (19). Similarly, 62 percent of Americans favor admitting Ukraine to NATO, but only 36 percent of Germans supported such a move.

One way to think about this is that, in spite of the frequent media references to a revived Cold War, most people in the West aren’t there yet. Still, it may be where we are headed. Favorable opinion about the United States among Russians has fallen from 51 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in June 2015 and favorable opinion about NATO has fallen from 37 percent to 26 percent over the same period. Favorable opinion about Russia in the NATO countries has fallen from 37 percent to 26 percent.

Another way to think about this is that there has been a significant disaggregation within the NATO alliance since the end of the Cold War. The United States and Germany now represent opposite poles on a number of key policy issues. As the creation of the Eurozone and the negotiations over the Greek debt crisis show, Germany has become the dominant power in Europe. Americans demonstrate a resolution (or belligerence) unmatched by the Germans. This is something with which future leaders of both countries will have to wrestle.

Still another way to think about this is that we are witnessing yet another phase in the troubled, tortuous relationship between Germany and Russia. Before the First World War they were two conservative empires in opposed alliances. Between the wars they were ideologically opposed states driven to co-operate by their international pariah status. Since 1945, the partitioned Germanys first clung to their dominant partner, then West Germany’s “Ostpolitik” began opening a road East based on economic complementarity. Vladimir Putin’s assertion of Russian power and interests among the non-NATO former members of the Soviet Union has challenged that relationship. Belarus and Georgia may be next, but people worry that he will not stop at the borders of the Baltic states. Putin’s own moderation—or lack of it–holds the key.

[1] Naftali Bendavid, “Poll Shows West Is Divided On How to Deal With Russia,” WSJ, 10 June 2015.

[2] The Polish stance is worth some thought because Poland is going to provide the most likely battlefield in such a conflict.

The Iran Dilemma.

Tom Friedman’s opinion on Middle Eastern matters must command respect. Friedman has remarkable access to American government sources. The Obama administration often appears to voice its views through his column.

Since the Revolution of 1979 overthrew the Shah, the United States and Iran have been at odds. At the same time, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran have been at odds. So, an alliance of convenience formed between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Recently, the upheavals in the Middle East have consolidated the grip on power of Iranian clients in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Over the longer term, however, Iran’s long pursuit of nuclear weapons has been profoundly destabilizing to the region. (See: Bomb ‘em ‘till the mullahs bounce.)

Friedman’s recent column on the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program lays out some essential issues, even if it does not fully explore them.[1]

First, the Obama Administration hopes that a nuclear deal with Iran will be “transformational.” If sanctions are lifted, Iran can be drawn into the larger world. Contact with more liberal societies may—eventually—turn Iran into a “normal,” non-revolutionary state.

Second, the Obama administration sees Iran as a legitimate counter-weight to the Wahhabist version of Islam sponsored by America’s nominal “ally,” Saudi Arabia. Iran has competitive (if not “free”) elections; respect for women beyond the norm in the Muslim world; and real military power that it is willing to use. In contrast, Saudi Arabia is an absolutist monarchy that sponsors the spread of the extremist Wahhabism that can easily turn into Islamic radicalism, but will not use its powerful military for more than air shows.

Third, “America’s interests lie not with either the Saudis or the Iranian ideologues winning, but rather with balancing the two against each other until they get exhausted enough to stop prosecuting their ancient Shi’ite-Sunni, Persian-Arab feud.”

Fourth, “managing the decline of the Arab state system is not a problem [the United States] should own. We’ve amply proved we don’t know how.”

Points worth discussing.

What caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, contact with the West or the inherent stupidity of Communism? Is expanded contact with the West eroding the power of the Chinese Communist Party? These examples go to the “transformational” aspect of the issue.

Is the Obama administration hoping for a Nixon-Kissinger style “opening” (as to China) that will remake the politics of the Middle East? If so, is the game worth the candle? What American interests will be advanced by such an opening? Iran will fight ISIS and Saudi Arabia will back opponents of the Shi’ite government in Baghdad regardless of such a change.

Does the Obama administration accept that we are witnessing the undoing of the Sykes-Picot borders? If so, which borders are likely to be redrawn? Iraq, Syria, and Libya are failed states. What about Saudi Arabia (home to most of the foreign fighters in ISIS) or Egypt?

Finally, Friedman argues that “if one assumes that Iran already has the know-how and tools to build a nuclear weapon, changing the character of the regime is the only way it becomes less threatening.” First, he accepts the thrust of the piece by Broad and Sanger, that Iraq knows how to make a nuclear weapon. (See: A note of caution in Iran.) Second, he argues that changing attitudes is the “only” way to deal with the danger. Really? Soldiers usually plan for an enemy’s capabilities, not his intentions—which can be hard to discern.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “Looking Before Leaping,” NYT, 25 March 2015.

Putinium.

Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad. He had impeccable Communist credentials; his father was a manual laborer, his mother was a school teacher. He studied law in university (like Mikhail Gorbachev), then took a job with the KGB. (See: irony.) Here he was an intelligence officer, operating in East Germany. When the USSR began to withdraw its forces from its East European empire Putin came home to Leningrad. Here he worked for a number of politicians in the new democracy. One of these was Boris Yeltsin.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had not thrilled the Russians. Street crime and white-collar crime exploded, while the economy decayed, and Russia fell from the status of a superpower. People around Yeltsin piled up immense fortunes by seizing control of Russia’s natural resources, banking, and media. Mikhail Khodorkovsky got control of the Yukos oil company, which established a virtual monopoly on Russian oil production and exports. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky created media empires. Generally, nobody paid taxes. A few people got rich while most suffered.

In 1998 Yeltsin appointed Putin to run the FSB, heir to the KGB. Two years later in 2000, when the ailing Yeltsin left government, Putin ran for President of Russia. During the campaign someone bombed an apartment building in Moscow, killing 200 people. The suspected bombers were Chechen separatists. Putin promised to wipe them out. He won the presidency.

In power, Putin turned on the “oligarchs” who had risen up during the Yeltsin era. Khodorkovsky went to jail and Yukos Oil was nationalized, Berezovsky and Gusinsky fled abroad. Taxes got collected. Street crime got squashed. Putin’s nationalization of Yukos Oil coincided with a sharp increase in demand for oil around the world. By 2007, Russia was earning about $170 billion a year from oil exports. Prosperity returned to Russia. Putin has distributed favors on a far more prudent basis than Yeltsin ever did. He uses them to build support for himself without harming the interests of the Russian people. At the same time, Putin has been ruthless in dealing with critics: he has used control of the media to prevent opposition candidates from getting out their message; and he is suspected of having prompted the assassination of dissidents Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. In the December 2007 elections voters had to mark the ballots in public view—of soldiers. This is a lot like mid-19th Century elections. Not exactly the Australian ballot. Still, it seemed to work. Public opinion polls showed Putin enjoying a 70 percent favorable rating among ordinary Russians. In December 2007 Putin’s United Russia party won 400 of 450 seats in the Russian parliament (the Duma).

Where is he headed? He appears to be aiming at a restoration of Russian power. He has begun a $200 billion rearmament program. He has tried to block the extension of an American anti-missile system into Eastern Europe. He has challenged the idea of America as the sole super-power. He is still fighting the Chechen war. He turns off the flow of oil to the Ukraine whenever it seems too independent. Then there’s the Crimea.

The question is not whether Russia could have been held down permanently after the collapse of Communism. It could not. But could Russia have become a Western-style democracy? Is a collision inevitable between a reviving Russia and the West?

“Why Russia Loves Putin,” The Week, 21 December 2007, p. 11.