At the Frontline of the Battle for Syria

Earlier this week PBS’s Frontline aired a powerful new documentary on Syria that lets viewers see the ongoing fighting up close and through the eyes of the rebels, the regime, and those trapped in the middle. It does a fantastic job of integrating the micro-level dynamics of the violence on the ground with the macro-level political forces operating in the country more broadly.

The Battle for Syria is gripping footage and courageous journalism. In the first of two segments, freelance cameraman Jeremiah Bailey Hoover joins The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad as the two use smuggling routes to slip inside the country from across the Turkish border. They journey to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and meet a squad of rebel fighters engaged in street-to-street warfare against the tanks, snipers and air force of the regime.

The battle line cuts through the heart of Aleppo. Graves are dug in local gardens, waiting to receive the still-warm dead. The rebels retreat and advance. They kill a sniper and retrieve bodies lying in the street. They receive a defector and capture a spy who betrayed himself by mistakenly praising Assad at the rebel checkpoint. With the front line moving by the hour and death in the air, it’s not clear who controls the neighborhood.

The streets are typically deserted but civilians pop up here and there. In a telling scene, a man approaches the front with an absurd level of nonchalance as he walks hand-in-hand with his young children, ignoring the rebel’s entreaties to stay back, telling them that the regime snipers will not shoot as they walk on by. Another man shouts angrily at the rebels, cursing them for inviting the Government’s artillery and air power to bombard the neighborhood without discrimination.

Just as The Battle for Syria lays bare the micro-level uncertainties that prevail on the frontlines among civilians betwixt and between the two combatants, the film’s second segment recounts the macro-level narrative of how the fighting resulted from a series of increasingly polarizing events beginning with a few kids from the town of Daraa, who had the balls to spray-paint anti-Assad graffiti on the walls of their school.

The film traces how the torture subsequently suffered by the boys at the hands of the regime was recorded and shown on YouTube, quickly becoming a focal point for people to organize collectively and express their outrage. Although their demands were limited and relatively inchoate, the regime responded with a brutal crack-down. Even so, the examples of successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt emboldened the people and the protests gained momentum and the repression of the regime only served to empower those willing to use violence to meet the violence.

How is it that such a small spark could light this kind of fire and how does it relate to the broader structural forces that drive political instability in some countries but not others?

Timur Kuran has suggested one way to think about how broad structuralist forces interact with the individual determinants of opposition. In a famous analysis of the fall of the Iron Curtain, Kuran distinguished between an individual’s private and public preferences. Citizens living under authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe were often afraid of expressing their true desires—i.e., opposition— publicly for fear of punishment. Instead, they behaved as though they supported communism in a form of “preference falsification,” cloaking such private truths with public lies.

Individual support or opposition to a political regime is not uniformly distributed throughout society. In Syria, for example, Sunni Islamists have a long history of resentment against the Assad regime and are die-hard opponents; others like the Alawite minority are die-hard supporters, many of whom fear for their lives were Assad to fall from power. Most people, however, are somewhere in between.

Kuran’s second point is that the mere sight of people collectively engaging in public defiance can inspire those on the sidelines to take part. He suggests that the die-hard opponents who mobilize early in protest can lower the threshold of others who, though privately sympathetic, would otherwise remain on the sidelines out of fear or social pressure. The participation of these individuals, in turn, add to the size of the protest movement and make it even easier for even more reluctant yet privately dissatisfied individuals to join in. This process is further accelerated if dramatic events like the torture of children can serve as focal points to channel public dissatisfaction. Subsequent repression by the regime that results in additional casualties can raise grievances and lower thresholds even further. Such a cascading effect helps explain how seemingly minor incidents can have major repercussions. Though apparently unpredictable in advance, they seem obvious in hindsight.

Preference falsification helps us see why authoritarian regimes seems so stable until the eve of their disintegration. In Eastern Europe, when citizens realized that there were thousands of others who were just like them, the regimes collapsed remarkably swiftly. This, according to Kuran, is why seemingly strong dictatorships are actually highly vulnerable to the public expression of political opposition. Indeed, as Lisa Wedeen has shown, fears of public unrest drove a remarkable effort by Bashar’s father, Hafez, to build a cult of personality. That pretty much everyone privately knew this cult was ridiculous missed the point: ensuring the mere semblance of outward support was enough to keep citizens engaging in docile preference falsification and unaware of the true scale of discontent.

In a cruel irony, The Battle for Syria recounts Bashar’s elderly mother, Anisa, chiding her son for lacking the firm hand of his father.


Reading Waltz in Tehran or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb



Forget for a minute about parsing the nuances of Iran’s controversial nuclear program—whether, for example, the officially ‘civilian’ program has a covert agenda aimed at developing nuclear weapons, how far along such a component might be, and whether this merits a pre-emptive strike by the United States or its allies. Forget that and stop agonizing. The sooner Tehran gets the bomb, the better. A nuclear-armed Iran would bring stability to the Middle East.

At least, that’s what one of the most famous theorists of International Relations (IR) has to say in the cover story of the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. No one familiar with Kenneth N. Waltz’s work should be surprised with this analysis as the article strikes the same basic theme that the doyen of IR has been sounding for the last three decades, namely, that a balance of power is what keeps the peace in the international system. What is surprising is that the IR school of realism, with which Waltz is so closely associated, has advanced in recent years, but insights from this literature and from history are missing from the ongoing policy debate. Between blithe optimism and pre-emptive striking there are other ways of dealing with Iran’s controversial nuclear program, one that doesn’t require accepting a priori all of the assumptions on which Waltz’s analysis depends, and one that ought to include regional states beyond Israel, notably Washington’s Arab allies.

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War Junk: New Book on the Failures of Obama’s Afghan Surge

Foreign Policy is carrying an excerpt from the new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by the Washington Post’s always insightful Rajiv ChandrasekaranIt’s essential reading and does more than anything else I’ve read recently to capture what made the Obama administration’s ‘civilian surge’ in Afghanistan so unfocused, short-sighted and counterproductive. While the focus here is on the flawed American effort, unfortunately, from personal experience I can testify that the pathologies Chandrasekaran identifies were endemic to the international engagement much more broadly and with very few exceptions.

Chandrasekaran raises several factors that defined the lives of many people working on the civilian side. Among them:

  • Restrictive security measures that virtually imprisoned aid workers and political officers in their offices. Getting out to actually meet Afghans and see funding projects was often impossible. The self-imposed fog of war induced bureaucratic narcosis: ever-growing reams of working documents cross-referenced one another with an ever-weakening link to a reality ‘out there.’ Progress, such as it was, became defined by the holding of meetings and the drafting of papers rather than the concrete achievement of real-world objectives.
  • Dysfunctional and sclerotic hiring procedures. Identifying and making use of high-quality people was a perennial challenge, assembling and maintaining a corporate knowledge-base all but impossible. To make matters worse, the personal sacrifices entailed by working in a crisis zone meant that promises of high pay and promotions were used to attract high-quality people. Unfortunately, this often had the effect of attracting people more concerned with high-pay and promotions than the fate of Afghans.

Faced with these frustrations, people grew despondent and often found solace in diversions. At the U.S. Embassy in Kabul,

Some staffers retreated to their trailers to watch movies on their laptops. Others grew homesick and despondent…The most common salve, however, was booze. For those not lucky enough to be invited to a private party in one of the apartments, the Duck and Cover — whose logo featured a duck wearing a combat helmet perched atop sandbags — was the place to go. On Thursday nights, staffers crammed shoulder to shoulder in the pub, downing cans of Heineken, glasses of cheap Australian white wine, and bottles of hard lemonade. The place remained hopping until last call at 2 in the morning, when everyone stumbled back to his or her hooch.

Forget grappling with how to ensure basic security in this war-torn country, even getting right the logistics of the 2010 Mardi Gras celebration on the grounds of its own embassy proved too much for American administrative capabilities:

Hundreds of revelers, including thick-necked security contractors, raggedy aid workers, and suit- wearing diplomats from other countries, packed into a tent next to the main embassy office building. The organizers had procured more than enough liquor, but the partygoers had access to only two restrooms. The queue for the toilets grew so long that inebriated attendees began to relieve themselves elsewhere. The deputy Turkish ambassador urinated on the wall of the chancery building. So did two American men who worked at the embassy. A female staffer pulled off her underwear and squatted on a patch of grass near the flagpole. [U.S. Ambassador] Eikenberry couldn’t do anything about the Turk, but both of the American men were sent home. When the woman was hauled into her supervisor’s office the following day and told she would be disciplined, she claimed to have a small bladder and threatened to lodge an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint. She was allowed to finish her tour in Kabul. The following week, the word came down that there would be no more blow-out parties until the Marine Corps birthday ball that fall, and alcohol purchases at the embassy convenience store would be limited to two bottles of wine or one bottle of spirits per person per day.


From End-Game to Great Game: China and Indo-Pakistani Rivalry in Afghanistan

Geography is destiny,” Napoleon famously observed. As Afghanistan fades fast from diplomatic radars in most Western capitals, things are heating up for Kabul’s regional neighbors, as they jostle for influence in ways that seem to bear out the gnomic remark. Earlier this month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing to sign a joint declaration to establish a ‘framework’ for strategic partnership between the two countries. Though largely ignored by Western media, this development might well portend the beginnings of a scramble for influence in Central Asia reminiscent of 19th century geopolitical competition between the great powers of the region. Back then, the rivals were Great Britain and Russia who attempted to exert influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Today, the relative balance of power between India and Pakistan is shaping Chinese perceptions in this 21st century Tournament of Shadows.

The announcement by Kabul and Beijing to seek a strategic partnership comes just months after virtually all of the major troop-contributing nations—the United States, the United Kingdom, France and others—declared their intention to end combat missions and withdraw the vast majority of their troops within the next two years. Nature abhors a vacuum and the timing suggests that as the era of US hegemony in Afghanistan draws to a close, regional players are about to jump in more forcefully.

Until now, Beijing has been content to be something of a ‘free-rider,’ standing back while the US-backed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) does the heavy lifting when it comes to providing security. Meanwhile, China’s state-run businesses have reaped an economic whirlwind, capturing prizes like the the concession to develop the world’s largest unexploited copper fields at the Aynak mine. Since winning the concession, 1500 Afghan National Police officers have guarded the mine, while 2000 US soldiers have provided overarching stability in Logar Province where Aynak is located.

From the viewpoint of Washington, China’s influence in Afghanistan is hardly pernicious when compared to the reported actions of some of the other regional actors in the country, notably Iran and Pakistan. Moreover, Chinese investments in places like Aynak are among the most important drivers for Afghanistan’s long-term economic prosperity. But make no mistake: China’s Afghan policy reflects interests that are far broader than just Afghanistan alone.

When analysts talk about China’s intentions in Afghanistan, they typically mention Beijing’s desires to neutralize the Uyghur separatists from Xinjiang Province who once found sanctuary in Afghanistan while it was under Taliban rule. They point to China’s interest in curtailing the proliferation of drugs derived from Afghanistan’s poppy crop. They also mention Beijing’s ambitions to build energy corridors to Central Asia that will reduce its dependence on the narrow Strait of Malacca shipping lane through which the vast majority of its petroleum imports transit, making the country exceptionally vulnerable to naval interdiction in the event of a conflict with a certain superpower.

But, to really understand the promises and pitfalls of China’s Afghan policy, we need to take into account the broader geopolitical chessboard. Take China’s interests in extracting Afghanistan’s rich untapped reserves resources. The country has sizable deposits of iron ore, gold, silver, uranium, lithium, and natural gas. All of this fits into a broader Chinese policy to develop a regional transportation corridor that involves building rail connections that go through Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan. Indeed, Beijing’s intention is to link Kashgar on its western frontier with Central Asia via the Karakoram and, ultimately, Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea, which China has helped finance, build and operate. Designs for regional energy corridors help explain why Beijing is likely to see Afghanistan through a broader strategic lens. It’s also in this context that the triangular relationship between China, India and Pakistan begins to come into focus.

Ever since Beijing and Delhi fought a border war in 1962, China has provided Pakistan with major military and economic assistance, including the transfer of nuclear technology. All this can be understood in classic realist terms: despite their diametrically opposed governing ideologies, Islamabad and Beijing have built an enduring ‘all-weather friendship’ fundamentally based on using each other as strategic hedges against Delhi. From the viewpoint of Beijing, supporting Pakistani designs to use Afghanistan for ‘strategic depth’ helps divert India from focusing on competing with China.

Not that this strategy isn’t without clear risks. Pakistan’s strategy of supporting violent Islamic militants in the region backfired when such groups began to contest the writ of the Pakistani state. Indeed, mounting reports suggest that the Uyghur separatists comprising the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who once operated from Afghanistan are now based across the Durand Line in Pakistan and near the Chinese border.

Still, the Sino-Pakistani alliance continues to bedevil Indian strategists at the highest echelons of power, many of whom see an overarching Chinese agenda of containing India. In an interview earlier this month, India’s recently retired Chief of Army Staff, V.K. Singh, warned that China and Pakistan are working in concert to “outflank” India in Afghanistan.

For its part, Delhi has invested handsomely in Afghanistan, having pledged over US$1.3 billion for reconstruction and development over the past decade and constructing infrastructure projects that bypass Gwadar port. For example, Indian aid figured prominently into the construction of the highway between Zaranj and Delaram that will connect western Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar. Combine this with Delhi’s longstanding ties with the Marxist regime in Kabul during the Soviet occupation as well as its assistance to the Northern Alliance during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, and the contours of another proxy war in Afghanistan are not difficult to imagine were things to really deteriorate between India and Pakistan.

In a recent commentary, the learned Ashley J. Tellis remarks:

 Irrespective of how the coming security transition in Afghanistan pans out, one country is on a surprising course to a major strategic defeat: Pakistan. Every foreseeable ending to the Afghan war today—continued conflict with the Taliban, restoration of Taliban control in the southern and eastern provinces, or a nationwide civil war—portends nothing but serious perils for Islamabad. But judging from Pakistan’s behavior, it appears as if this fact has eluded the generals in Rawalpindi.

Although China has greater ambitions than simply using Afghanistan as another arena to put India on the defensive, it’s unclear how far Beijing will go to upset Pakistani decision-makers in their own attempts to do so. Given Pakistan’s still formidable leverage in defining the terms of any Afghan settlement and the overarching centrality of the Sino-Pakistani relationship to both Islamabad and Beijing, it’s premature to follow Tellis in predicting “Pakistan’s impending defeat” in the country.

China’s geopolitical wagon in Central Asia remains hitched to Pakistan. While geography doesn’t act on politics in a deterministic fashion, we ignore Napoleon at our peril: the calculations that drive Sino-Pakistani cooperation remain intact and the the infrastructural investments that both countries have made in Central Asia continue to promote competition with India rather than cooperation.