First Reactions to Syria Strike: Yet More Uncertainty

by Stephen Saideman

The missile strike against the airfield in Syria raises far more questions than it answers (for an excellent initial take, see here).  As I think about it, I have to be honest that my confirmation bias might be at work: that anything Trump does is wrong in my mind.  Would I have approved of Hillary Clinton doing the same thing?  Not so sure as I have become quite skeptical about the use of force, so let’s run through the situation itself before we get to the Trumpness of it all.

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Is excluding Syria’s unaccompanied men evidence-based policy?

By Simon Palamar

Among the promises the federal Liberals made in the recent election campaign were to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by year’s end, and a return to evidence-based policy making.

Now the government admits that they will not be able to settle 25,000 Syrians in Canada by the end of the year, and that it may take until February. This may be a good thing. After all, taking a few more weeks to ensure that services and support are in place is an acceptable delay, especially if it improves the chances that refugees coming to Canada will be able to successfully restart their lives here.

The more troubling issue is the decision on who from Syria will be allowed into Canada; that is, no unaccompanied males under the government-sponsored program (except for gay, bisexual, and transsexual males, who are remarkably vulnerable to predation in parts of Syria, and who should be welcomed to Canada). Is the new Canadian government  already violating its pledge to make policy on the basis of evidence, rather than ideology?

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The Syrian Crisis: A three-pronged strategy for Canada

By Valerie Percival

The Syrian crisis is no longer contained. Millions of refugees have fled into neighbouring countries. Tens of thousands are walking miles across Europe in search of safety and compassion.   Yet the world seems paralyzed – incapable of a coordinated response.

Canada shares in that paralysis. The recent announcement from the government recognizing Syrians as “prima facie” refugees, appointing a senior coordinator and scaling up immigration staff is welcome. Yet the government changed its policies begrudgingly, with a cap of just 10,000 refugees by the end of the year and 46,000 by 2019. Their talking points remain constant, reminding Canadians that an influx of tens of thousands of refugees from Syria could undermine Canada’s security and way of life.

Such a parochial approach is inconsistent with the facts. Canada is a rich country. We are also a nation of migrants. Refugees fleeing war and oppression have long contributed to Canada’s material wealth, social capital and promise. And Canada’s security has always been best served by extending a hand to those in need.

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Nation-building in the Mideast? What is needed is a Sunni home in Mesopotamia

By Jean Daudelin

In an enthusiastic endorsement of Barrack Obama’s new offensive in Syria, Brookings’ Kenneth Pollack argues that the key to the stability of the region lies in effective nation-building.

In the face of innumerable failures and, over the last 20 years, of the progressive reconfiguration of Germany, Central Europe and the Balkans around newly created — or re-created — ethnic states, Pollack still argues that multi-ethnic or multi-communal nation-building is possible in the Middle-East, from the outside and without rearranging the absurd boundaries of the region.

And yet, if it were successful (a big if), the most likely outcome of the strategy he outlines — arming a “moderate” Syrian opposition and helping it take control of the country against both Assad and IS — would be the rise to power, in Syria, of a Sunni regime that would be a mirror image of Iraq’s Shia one, and under which you wouldn’t want to be a minority: Alawite, Kurdish or Christian, in this case, instead of Kurdish and Sunni in Iraq.

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Bomb, advise, assist: Why Obama has few options against IS

As originally posted by The Globe and Mail.

By Steve Saideman

There are many good reasons why President Barack Obama has been reluctant to get the U.S. directly involved in Syria’s civil war. The U.S. has already fought a number of wars and lesser conflicts in the Mideast since the terror attacks of September 11, with none leading to a satisfying outcome. This has exhausted the American armed forces, tested the patience of the American people, and cost trillions of dollars that can never be recouped. Until recently, public opinion was against any more conflict in or near Syria. Congress, too, has given Mr. Obama yet more reason to avoid involvement in Syria. The Republicans would prefer not to give him authority to act while complaining that the President is too weak and lacking leadership.

Leaving aside the complex domestic constraints, Mr. Obama faces a very serious problem in Syria: who to support? By fighting the Islamic State, Mr. Obama may end up supporting the Assad Regime. This is similar to the problem in Iraq, where helping Iraq might mean helping Iran. At least in Iraq there are two elements that the U.S. can support with only some qualms. The Kurds have a somewhat competent force, and they have done nearly all of the right things to suggest that they have popular support and, most important, are unlikely to turn their guns against the Americans. The government of Iraq could be an ally of the U.S. in this, especially since its interests are more directly implicated. The problem has been that the Shia-dominated government has broken the various agreements the U.S. had made with the Sunnis during the so-called Anbar Awakening. That movement was as – or more – essential to the decline in violence as the American surge.

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Re-Thinking Coercive Diplomacy

One of the most influential books in the realm of international security is Thomas Schelling’s Strategy of Conflict. It certainly was one of my favorite books in grad school, and I have been relying on key concepts in it and in his subsequent work ever since.*

*  Key caveat here is that I have not read it lately and don’t have the time to re-read it right now.  So I hope I am remembering things right.

The fundamental idea is: “the power to hurt is the power to bargain.”  With the advent of air power, countries could punish each other without having to win a conventional war on the ground.  This facilitates coercive diplomacy–the threat or use of force to persuade the other side to do what you want them to do.  This is, of course, very relevant right now as the U.S. has been attempting to engage in coercive diplomacy with Assad’s regime in Syria.  The red line stuff really fit the stuff that Schelling talks about–raising the stakes, making clear commitments, and so on.  But deterrence did not work.  Oops.

This is not the first time that coercive diplomacy has not worked out as intended.  Indeed, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a heap of literature on deterrence failure (George and Smoke, a special issue of World Politics, and on and on).  Vietnam could be seen as the first failure of coercive diplomacy as the graduated escalation was supposed to persuade the North Vietnamese to back down.  In more recent times, the 1991 war with Iraq was a failure in the sense that force had to be used to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, when he should have retreated once the U.S. had 500k troops on the ground. 2003?  Not so much, as the US had no intention of bargaining with Hussein.  Libya? Not really an attempt to bargain, as the use of force was aimed to stop his forces and then give the rebels enough support to overthrow him.  But these days, with Syria, it is very much coercive diplomacy.

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Confused About Syria? You’re not Alone.

When I used to teach introduction to international relations classes, I would tell my students that I hoped they would be more confused at the end of the term than at the beginning.  I told them I would be providing multiple perspectives on how to look at international relations and it would be up to them to figure out which ones make sense at any given time for any given topic.

So, perhaps it is fitting that I am seriously confused about the latest moves regarding Syria.  No, not the Canadian ones.  That Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird have issued statements siding strongly with the U.S. but committing to not committing the Canadian Forces to the effort does not surprise me. That much was pretty predictable.

The confusing developments have been in Great Britain and the United States.  Prime Minister David Cameron lost a huge vote to gain parliament’s support for a Syrian mission.  While it is not surprising that his coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, might not be as enthusiastic as the Tories,[1]  the fact that Cameron lost the support of a key chunk of his own party was very surprising.  This is one of the biggest failures of vote counting prior to an important vote that I can remember.  Yes, there are a lot of raw feelings left over from the Iraq War, but one of the key rules for democratic leaders is not to hold votes until one knows what the outcome is going to be.

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Former SACEUR on Syria and Some Thoughts

No, not me, but the former military head of the alliance, James Stavridis.  I am a big fan of Stavridis, and was so before he provided such an excellent blurb for the Dave and Steve book.  I was not sure how I would take his piece on Syria, as I am skeptical about getting NATO together on this one (as well as skeptical about what force will accomplish).

His basic point is that NATO never really shows up entirely–every NATO war is a coalition of the willing, as countries vary in what they contribution.  This time the constellation is different.  Sure, but losing the UK is huge.  Germany may have heaps of capabilities, but we are used to the Germans opting out entirely or opting in with significant restrictions.  The British have always been an enthusiastic participant and have capabilities that other NATO countries do not possess, such as Tomahawk cruise missiles (which only the US also has).

The other problem with the piece is that he knows only too well as former SACEUR but cannot say it out loud a key piece of NATO truth: a threat to Turkey (Syria) is not the same as a threat to Italy or France (Libya).  Turkey has much less sway in the alliance, and a few countries have a fair amount of hostility towards Turkey.  So, don’t expect NATO consensus to form over the defense of Turkey.  At least, not easily and not quickly.

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Law, Morality, and War in Syria

The civil war in Syria has re-captured the international media spotlight. On the ground, the situation is complex and constantly evolving, with events ranging from bullets fired at United Nations inspectors to Russian naval ships on alert in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the West is bracing for a military intervention to “punish” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly deploying nerve gas against his own civilians. Disturbing photos of lifeless children have made observers painfully aware of the merciless brutality of war.

The push for Canada to intervene is emotionally and morally compelling. Accumulating body counts remind us of our indifference when hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were slaughtered in 1994. Our subsequent interventions is Kosovo and Libya, however, remind us that inaction is not the only option. Many people believe that we have the power and obligation to stop the suffering. Nonetheless, this is not a consensus view. Many experts agree that a Western intervention is likely to be unsuccessful and can only prolong the suffering.

Similarly dominating the media are two legal claims worthy of investigation. First, Western politicians allege that by using chemical weapons against his own civilians, President Assad has violated international law. Is this the case? The original intention of the Geneva Protocol was only to prohibit their use between states but not in purely domestic wars. The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits their use against civilians, but Syria is not a party to that treaty. Due to widespread state practice and sense of obligation, however, a reasonable case can be made that the unconditional prohibition on chemical weapons is customary international law. This would mean Syria has violated the prohibition, regardless of its non-party status.

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Syria: Watch Your Step!

With the apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians, Assad has crossed Obama’s red line, triggering renewed discussion of the possibility of Western intervention.  With a Russian veto certain at the United Nations, Obama’s staff is looking at the NATO air campaign during the Kosovo War as an example of how to get as much international support and legitimacy as possible for any military options.  While that is one problem, the bigger challenge is that, as I discussed here earlier, there are no good options.

Pinging Syria with cruise missiles is relatively cost-free (even in a time of sequestration).  But it would be kabuki theater, as the missiles would do some minimal damage but not make a difference on the ground.  It might satisfy demands to do something about Syria, but maybe not even that.

There is some discussion of a no fly zone along the lines of what NATO did in Libya. Only, what really happened in Libya bore little resemblance to what would traditionally be understood as a no fly zone.  Sure, NATO stopped Libya from flying its planes and helicopters, but it did far more than that.  Its stance of “protecting civilians” really meant taking the side of the rebels against Qaddafi and essentially becoming close air support for their land forces.  In Syria, a no fly zone on its own would not make that much impact since Assad could still rely on missiles and artillery to do significant damage to his opposition and civilians caught in the crossfire.  And a full Libya-type operation faces a key constraint – the Syrian opposition is deeply divided except for its hostility to Assad and the West, so taking sides is really hard.

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