Middle East

The Syrian conflict

“Members of the XI International Brigade of the Republican International Brigades at the Battle of Belchite ride on a Soviet T-26 tank.” Испанская_11_интербригада_в_бою_под_Бельчите._1937-edit

The Syrian Civil War (2011-present) has been a test of our current world order, much in the same manner that the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was before World War Two. In both cases, diplomacy and the international organizations proved unable to stem the violence. The two conflicts are also similar in that each has revealed the fissures of the modern global era, and quickly devolved into a proxy conflict. In both cases foreign fighters flocked to the battlefront for ideological reasons. The international volunteers in Republican Spain’s International Brigades (as well as the mostly Communists and anarchists in the POUM militias) have their Islamist parallels in the Syrian civl war. While their ideologies were completely different, in each case you saw young people streaming to the battlefield not because they had been sent by a state, but rather because they felt a sense of duty to a cause. In Spain, the nationalist leader Franco welcomed foreign units from France, Germany, Italy and Morocco, which perhaps parallels how states such as Iran and Russia have sent support to Bashar al Assad in modern Syria.

Of course there are differences in the two wars. After the Spanish Civil War most foreign combatants were welcomed home. Perhaps the key difference, however, in the struggle has been that in Syria a major non-state actor -Hezbollah- has proven to be a key and unified power on the battlefield. Still, even a cursory comparison of the two conflicts leads to a strange feeling of deja vu.

This similarity extends to the realm of military affairs. Much like the Spanish civil war, the Syrian conflict has also proved to be a test of modern military equipment and tactics. In both conflicts external actors lent aid not only to support their allies, but also to test their systems. In the 1930s it was Germany that drew the key lessons from the battles in Spain, particularly regarding the role of close-air support. Western democracies did not pay similar attention to how technology had changed warfare (especially Britain and France), which proved to be a major mistake. In the case of Syria, Hezbollah has made immense progress in urban warfare tactics, while Russia has used the conflict to display its naval and air capabilities. Together with the Iranians, the Russian intervention has changed the course of the war. There can be little question now that the momentum now is with the Syrian regime to such an extent that President Assad can aspire to reclaim control over the entire nation, with the possible exception of the Kurdish region. This is a dramatic change from the state of affairs even two years ago. …

Afghanistan and despair

U.S. special forces troops ride horseback as they work with members of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom on Nov. 12, 2001. By Department of Defense employee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I love the War College podcasts, which consist of outstanding interviews with key thinkers in the area of security. If you want to understand the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, I highly recommend their podcast, “The Case for Leaving Afghanistan,” which showcases the thoughts of journalist Douglas Wissing. Spoiler alert: the picture is not good. The author of two books on Afghanistan, Wissing argues that our longest military commitment has endured because companies make money from it, while officers make careers. Wissing says that we have spent over a trillion dollars on the war to date, but the Afghan government is losing ground.

In terms of development, the U.S. has spent over $100 billion in Afghanistan, which is more than the U.S. spent on the Marshall plan in Europe after adjusting for inflation. As Wissing notes this is a staggering amount of money for a nation of 30 million people. Worse, he suggests that a significant portion of those development funds were siphoned off to fund the Taliban itself. He argues that the projects that the U.S. has funded have been divorced from Afghan reality, and unsustainable for that reason. The entire history has been a textbook lesson in how not to do development, he suggests, in part because policy has been driven by the personal, career and institutional needs of those people dispersing the funds. …

Academic Freedom and Fear in Turkey

Turkey is an emerging global power, with a rich history, key geographical location, and significant economic strengths. At the same time, the country is now experiencing a major political crisis. After the attempted coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has launched a wide-ranging purge of its political opponents in academia, the police, the military, and education. More than 100,000 people have been purged from their jobs. This issue has become so serious that the E.U. has temporarily ceased its accession talks, which has led to a powerful backlash from Turkey. In response to the EU’s decisions, Erdoğan has threatened to abandon a Turkish deal with the EU regarding refugees.

Certainly, the coup was a horrifying event, in which over 300 people died. The coup plotters sought to overthrow a democracy through violence, and the government had to respond. Nonetheless, the extent of the current repression has attracted criticism from academic and human rights organizations, nation-states, and the European Union. Today the International Studies Association (ISA) sent an email to all ISA members regarding the case of Dr Sedat Laciner, Professor of International Relations and Rector of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University. Dr. Laciner is currently imprisoned on terrorism charges that he denies. The ISA email shared his statement, “I don’t know how long they will keep me in prison,” which conveys his version of why he was arrested. Similarly, novelists, magazine editors, and journalists have been swept up in the arrests and purge. In this context, the ISA has issued a statement regarding Academic Freedom in Turkey, where academics now face restrictions on travel and professional work, as well as the fear of arrest.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

We must face the new truth of global warming

Earlier on this blog I’ve talked about the evidence that the Syrian civil war needs to be understood in the context of a devastating drought, and the government’s inability to respond effectively. What is chilling, however, is what global warming entails for the entire Middle East and northern Africa. The recent Washington Post article by Hugh Naylor, “An epic Middle East heat wave could be global warming’s hellish curtain-raiser,” is a thought-provoking look at what this future might entail. In some respects, the future is already here in that nations in the region are experiencing record high temperatures, and a heat index that has reach 140 degrees in the UAE and Iran. Unfortunately, I no longer think that we can talk about preventing the worst aspects of global warming. It’s too late. The reality is that not only is global warming taking place, but also that the global community has waited too long to respond. The world is committed to a long course of climate change and sea level rise that will endure for centuries. Some of the arguments in Naylor’s piece are chilling: “A study published by the journal Nature Climate Change in October predicted that heat waves in parts of the Persian Gulf could threaten human survival toward the end of the century.” Of course, this will entail the massive migration of people from this region to Europe and Asia. Still, it would be a mistake to focus only on this region in isolation. Climate migration will be a key social, political and economic factor in global affairs not only for the lifetime of everyone who reads this piece, but also for their grandchildren. The impact will be particularly devastating in some areas, such as the cities of the Chinese coast, many of which (like Shanghai) will be largely flooded. In the United States, Zillo is trying to calculate impact the economic impact of rising seas to Florida. …

The never ending Syrian Conflict

Max Fisher has an outstanding article on the Syrian Conflict titled “Syria’s Paradox: Why the War Only Ever Seems to Get Worse.” Fisher places the Syrian conflict into the context of other civil wars, and argues that that what makes this conflict distinct is not only the diversity of combatants within Syria, but the extent to which this is a proxy war, which has drawn in a myriad of external actors. In sum, Fisher suggests that all the factors in place suggest that this will be a very long war. While not a cheerful read, the writing is clear, the arguments are succinct, and the implications are disturbing. As I write this, the piece has attracted over 330 comments, and it is well worth reading the “reader recommended” ones. …

Maps of emerging states

Although this map by Frank Jacobs and Parag Khanna is now almost four years old, the fundamental forces that are driving the emergence of new states have not changed. Indeed, their depiction of where new states might appear has proven to be prescient, particularly with regard to Kurdistan. Still, the fact that none of these possible nation-states has yet achieved global recognition makes the point the current nation-state system is resilient. As Ann Hironaka has argued (in her concise, thoughtful and well-researched book titled “Neverending Wars”), the global community’s reluctance to recognize new states may have the unintended consequence of prolonging conflicts. If so, perhaps this map doesn’t truly point to where new states will emerge as much as it indicates areas that are likely to experience conflict.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Security, fear and Stuxnet

Roman Poroshyn’s brief book (156 pages) provides an excellent overview of Stuxnet within the larger context of cyber-warfare and espionage in the Middle East. Unlike another book on the same topic, Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero, it is not based on extensive interviews, nor does it focus in as great a depth upon the process through which the virus was investigated by global cyber security firms. Instead, with Stuxnet: the true story of Hunt and Evolution, Poroshyn tries to place Stuxnet into a broader context of espionage and cyber-warfare directed against not only Iran, but also other institutions in the Middle East, such as the Lebanese banking system. The book is an engaging read (despite the awkward wording of its subtitle), and Poroshyn shares a number of intriguing insights, of which the most interesting was that Stuxnet’s creators ultimately may have allowed it to be revealed to the world as an act of psychological warfare (33-35, 154-155). One of Poroshyn’s other arguments is that Stuxnet is only one chapter in a much longer struggle, which is convincing given his detailed analysis of successive software tools (Flame, Gauss, Narilam, and perhaps Stars) that Israel and the United States likely used against Iran and other regional actors.

One of the book’s strengths is its ability to convey the intelligence of the software design behind this particular cyberweapon. For example, Stuxnet entered into the Iranian nuclear enrichment network through USB sticks, because the network was air-gapped (lacked an internet connection) to the outside world. The level of deceit entailed is chilling: “After the third infection the original Stuxnet worm commits suicide. It deletes itself from the USB stick without leaving a trace” (18). Perhaps most impressive was the fact that it used the very tools for securing machines to infect them: “The perfect match for all of Stuxnet’s requirements is a computer scan process, generated by antivirus software. Stuxnet injects its clone into a variety of processes generated by anti-virus programs from BitDefender, Kaspersky, McAfee, Symantec, and many others” (19). The program was so effective that it briefly shut down the entire Iranian enrichment program (22). Of course, the Iranians ultimately were able to return to significant production. What is impressive, however, was that it achieved this goals which would have been difficult to achieve even with a conventional airstrike against such a hardened site as the Iranian enrichment facility. It also had dangerous implications: “Russia, which is involved in the reconstruction of the Iranian nuclear reactor in Busher, immediately accused Stuxnet of problems associated with the reactor’s reconstruction, and blamed Stuxnet for all delays” (37). There seems to be little evidence for this allegation, but once the attack is made, other actors may also view themselves as being threatened (or that the attack represents a convenient excuse).

There is reason to believe, as Poroshyn suggests, that there are other versions of this particular weapon in existence, only biding their time to be unleashed (53). This book is currently in its third edition. It will be interesting to learn what has happened when the fourth edition is released.

If you are interested in cyber-warfare you might want to read my review of the novel Ghost Fleet.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Seymour Hersh and Syria

Few investigative journalists have as impressive a history covering international issues as Seymour Hersh. His current article, Military to Military, in the London Review of Books harshly criticizes current U.S. policy in Syria for being too critical of Russia, too supportive of Turkey, and most of all, unsuccessful. The piece is well worth reading.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

War and the limits of theory

Image of the Persian Gulf from the CIA World Factbook
Image of the Persian Gulf from the CIA World Factbook

This week an anonymous author wrote a brief article in the New York Review of Books that is attracting a lot of attention. All that we know about the writer is that they have worked as an official in a “NATO country” and that they have a great deal of experience in the Middle East. The central idea of the piece is that our current social science theories utterly fail to explain the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As the author argues, there is a rich literature on guerrilla warfare, which is based on more than a century of experience. ISIS has violated everyone of these rules -don’t engage in fixed position warfare; don’t violate the social norms in the communities in which you exist- and yet ISIS still moves from success to success against vastly greater forces.

Like most observers, the author of this piece has been stunned both by the sheer speed of ISIS’s success, and its ability to change the rules of the game. The author makes the point that observers often assume that what is needed is more information, but perhaps that is not the case. Maybe the real problem is our analytical frameworks. Maybe we don’t know what we thought we know. Certainly, the complete failure of U.S. policy in Iraq raises questions about every aspect of U.S. counter-insurgency doctrine. Of course, one could also point to the deeply flawed rationale for the invasion of Iraq in the first place. Still, perhaps the conceptual problem is even larger than this, and speaks to the overall weakness of social science theories as they are applied to the region. The author makes the point that to see an equally stunning success against all expectations you might have to look to the Vandal conquest of North Africa in the dying days of the Roman Empire. This is an engaging analogy, although historians might quibble with the need to reach so deeply into the past. Even so, the larger point is that our current social science models governing what are sometimes called “small wars” don’t seem to be working well to understand this current conflict.

One might question whether our understanding of small wars is to Eurocentric. Still, most of the authors of foundational texts -Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara- were not Western. A counter-argument might be that ISIS may yet collapse as quickly as it emerged on the scene. Perhaps ISIS appears to be rewriting the rules only because there has not been enough time for it to pay the price for violating them. Perhaps ISIS has not yet had enough time to fail, and its collapse will be as quick as its rise. Still, if ISIS continues to thrive over the next few years, then the author is correct that something fundamental is wrong with our understanding of these conflicts. In that case, theorists and strategists will need to fundamentally question everything about our current understanding of irregular warfare.

If you are interested in the theory of war, I strongly recommend Ann Hironaka’s Neverending WarsI used the book in my “Foundations of Global Studies Theory” class, as a key security studies text. I am often frustrated by much of the existing literature in security studies, which still overemphasizes conventional conflict, and relies too much on Realism as a theoretical approach. In an era of terrorist organizations, cyber-warfare, Anonymous, and drug cartels, much of this theoretical literature is in danger of becoming dusty. Hironaka’s work is interesting because it focuses on civil war, the dominant form of conflict in the world today, and draws on insights from Sociology. Her central argument is that the international community unintentionally propagates these conflicts, an idea that is relevant to many existing conflicts globally.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

MERS and Saudi Health Care Workers

Historical photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, showing the many patients ill with the flu- U.S. Army photographer
Historical photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, showing the many patients ill with the flu- U.S. Army photographer

The CDC just reported the first case of MERS in the United States. A health care worker from Saudi Arabia recently traveled to the U.S. from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and became sick five days ago in Indiana. He has certainly been in contact with other people recently, not only on the flights, but also during a stopover in London.  He also took a bus trip from Chicago to Indiana. As usual, Ian MacKay’s blog has some of the best information on this virus, including a truly chilling chart of case counts. This makes clear the rapid growth of cases over the last month. Recent analyses have not identified any mutations in the virus that might account for this change. Another possibility for the spike in cases may be that infection control measures are breaking down in Saudi Arabia now, much as there were such initial failures with SARS in Canada in 2003. …

Privacy & Cookies: This site uses cookies. See our Privacy Policy for details. By continuing to use this website, you agree to their use. If you do not consent, click here to opt out of Google Analytics.