In January, I was given the opportunity to address a conference in the Danish parliament, held by Venstre party members, over the Syrian refugee crisis facing Europe. My remarks, below, followed those of Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who called for a policy of “head and heart.”
I’ve chosen a somewhat different path in public service that has allowed me to see some tremendous things. Of course, I still have a lot to learn. But my initiation, I like to tell people, was harsh and unsympathetic: I covered the beginning, the middle and the violent end of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace push between Israel and the Palestinians in 2013; the Gaza war that followed on the ground; the fall of Mosul in Iraq and rise of Islamic State from afar; and I led coverage for The Jerusalem Post on Iran.
But my first story in Washington that really broke me in as a national security correspondent was coverage of the president’s deliberation over the use of force in Syria after mass chemical weapons use in August of 2013.
I remember sitting in the office of a senior US official, just days after the sarin attack that killed 1,400, reporting on how the Obama administration was preparing legal justification for a military response. The Pentagon had just moved ships to the Syrian coast hours earlier. Our understanding – everyone’s understanding at the time – was that the president was preparing to strike Syrian President Bashar Assad. I asked this official when the strike would be, and she turned to me and simply said, “It’s on his desk. Its up to POTUS now. We just don’t know.”
So that was my real initiation. That’s when it struck me, more than it ever had previously, that individual policy choices by individual men can change the course of war.
But quite a lot has happened since that moment. In Washington, both Democrats and Republicans actually agree that the crisis is a by-product of the global failure to end the Syrian conflict.
Photo: Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus on August 21, 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE UNITED States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar – all of these countries have a direct role to play in this, just as we feared would be the case when the Syrian war began nearly five years ago.
The fear at that time, at the outbreak of the conflict, was that the descent of this particular country into darkness would be different. The disintegration of Syria would not be like that of Tunisia, of Libya or of Egypt, the most populous Arab nation. The fear, in short, was that other state systems throughout the Middle East were imploding in the Arab Spring, and the difference with Syria was the potential not for an implosion of the state but an explosion, caused by a convergence of strategic interests and the activity of ethnic fault lines.
I’m based at the White House. But I’ve seen the effects of that explosion all around the world as I’ve traveled from Moscow to Vienna, from Istanbul to Amman, from Jerusalem to right here where we’re discussing this in Copenhagen – and certainly back at home, where the focus of debate among our candidates for president is the state of Syria and its people.
You see, this all started at a time when Washington thought it had finally established a sophisticated understanding of just how the Middle East works. Washington’s expert class concluded in the mid- 2000s that, before March 2003, the Bush administration hadn’t thought much about the day after the invasion of Iraq; that it hadn’t spent much time considering the implications of smashing state institutions that were albeit suppressive but on the whole successfully holding together an extremely divided country.
They concluded in hindsight that before the Iraq War, there wasn’t real appreciation for the complexity of the borderless sectarian reality that is – and has for quite some time been – the Middle East.
But at the beginning of the Obama era, there was a sense that the lessons of Iraq were all the lessons we needed to learn.
Photo: A civil defense member carries an injured baby at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria’s president in the southern part of Idlib province, Syria, in October 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
So there was a pendulum swing of sorts from one foreign policy doctrine to another, and the swing in 2008 was dramatic.
It was intentionally dramatic. And the result was a doctrine of gentler engagement that was designed to a) largely remove the United States as the primary actor in Middle East conflicts; and b) balance America’s alliances in the Middle East among rival clans, Shi’ite and Sunni chief among them.
With his presidency largely in the past, there are now two major criticisms of Barack Obama and his policies on Syria.
One is that he does not have a comprehensive strategy to end the war and effectively fight Islamic State, nor does he have the fire, the urgency or the backbone to do what’s required toward that end.
But the other criticism is one more nuanced: that the decisions of the recent past have uniquely led us here; that if you choose inaction, not to decide on a path forward but to remain on the sidelines, then you still indeed have made a choice, and have taken an action of consequence to the outcome of this brutal war.
We – as policy-makers and journalists in the sphere of public service – all have a duty to step back and take stock of the stark choices our leadership has made in recent years, faced with admittedly steep challenges.
FIVE YEARS on from the start of the war, the debate at home is now ripping our political parties apart, turning that historic foreign policy paradigm upside down. Classic partisan divides no longer apply, because Republicans and Democrats are debating – not one another but among themselves – the merits of isolationism and interventionism, the real extent of American power and the costs of inaction.
That paradigm – with Bush on the one extreme and Obama on the other – has been challenged by the realities of the Middle East. In both parties, their own colleagues running to be their successors now acknowledge a simplicity to their doctrines they vow not to replicate.
The US government “too often has a tendency to swing between these extremes. The pendulum swings back, and then the pendulum swings the other way.” That was Hillary Clinton, speaking with The Atlantic magazine in 2014.
Republican and Democratic leaders alike look at the Middle East and they say this: We tried absolute intervention, invasion, in Iraq; an indefinite military presence in Afghanistan; leading from behind to intervene lightly in Libya; aggressive back-channel diplomatic intervention in Yemen; political rhetoric and the pulling of purse strings in Egypt; total passivity in Syria. We now may be past the age of neat guiding principles. Syria, beyond all other cases, has defied all of our rules and expectations.
To suggest the president and his team are satisfied with their policy on Syria would be an unfair misrepresentation of the president’s devotion to the issue.
The administration officials I speak with on this are visibly frustrated. Where the president and his critics differ is that he does not believe there is a single moment in time over the course of the last five years when he should have taken a different path.
That is precisely the retrospective we must undertake – both in the US and in Europe. And partisanship has no place in this retrospective.
What if US-led forces had set up a nofly zone – a humanitarian corridor – in 2013, before Russian planes patrolled Syrian skies? To what extent would that have alleviated the refugee crisis Europe is bearing today? Should Europe have pushed for such a corridor as aggressively as it pushed for an air campaign in Libya? At what point could the EU have provided more aid to the existing refugee camps in Turkey, in Jordan and Lebanon, and funds to help the governments and UN agencies sustaining them? Might the training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army in 2012 as opposed to 2014 have secured their gains now permanently lost?
This is how the political dynamic evolved in the US to this peculiar place we are today. But I also want to explain precisely how US policy evolved since 2011, because the positions held in the White House and in the Kremlin at the beginning of the war remain largely the same positions held now. To understand where we are now, you must understand those original positions. And as you’re well aware, they center on Assad and the blame he shoulders for the way this conflict spiraled out of control.
IT’S IMPORTANT to remember this all began with small, peaceful protests in 2011 for government reform, and the Obama administration did not hesitate to condemn Assad for sending in the military.
The White House said Assad had lost the legitimacy to rule, and six months into the conflict, the president explicitly said that “Assad must go.”
Just over a year into the war, the administration was already discussing whom to help among the armed Syrian rebel groups, at what time and pace, with what strength and through what kind of vetting process – “vetting” was the president’s priority.
Now, a president’s priorities are often reflected not just in the number of press briefings on offer, or troops deployed, or Situation Room meetings held: They are reflected not just in where there’s action, but also where there’s an absence of activity.
And the president prioritized Syria in such a way that he not only wanted to avoid discussing it; he also avoided what his team now says would have been an essential surge in intelligence activity.
The US did not have the sort of eyes and ears on the ground gathering the intelligence necessary to fully understand what was going on.
In the counterintelligence community, this is called “visibility.” And because American visibility in Syria was so weak at the start of the war – according to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, former secretaries of defense Bob Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, former CIA chief David Petraeus, and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey – the administration largely missed the fact that rebel groups fighting Assad were systematically fracturing into over 100 groups.
Another reason we didn’t notice rebel fracturing was the lack of professional journalism on the ground. Throughout 2012, the Assad regime began systematically targeting foreign reporters who were filing from the country. Over 150 journalists were targeted and murdered by the end of the war’s third year.
I’ll never forget the moment I learned that Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times
– a true icon of war correspondence – was targeted with several other journalists in a hideout in the city of Homs. She’d reportedly filed a story from a traceable IP. And in her last broadcast, after a career spanning the war zones of Chechnya, Kosovo and Zimbabwe, Colvin said she had just witnessed in Homs the most brutal, indiscriminate shelling she had ever seen.
Photo: An aerial view shows the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in July 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
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were also faced with this problem. Steven Sotloff, the second journalist publicly beheaded, reported for us from Syria facing tremendous risks to his life.
Make no mistake, our understanding of Syria at that critical time suffered for these reasons: Assad’s campaign against journalists was ruthless, aggressive and focused; the return on investment wasn’t there, with a general lack of interest in the war or political will to do anything about it; and reliance on cheaper tools for data and image collection gave us secondhand, not primary, evidence of the ground game. These were all real challenges where good reporting may very well have produced different political circumstances – and political room for the president to maneuver.
So between a lack of journalism on the ground and a lack of US intelligence visibility, we had virtually no idea how bad things were getting and no serious political debate, until it was far too late.
ONLY WHEN al-Qaida in Iraq – reincarnated as Islamic State or ISIS – reentered Iraq mid-2014 did US intelligence start to fully understand its operational capabilities and its territorial ambitions. And it was Kurdish, not American, intelligence that warned Baghdad of ISIS’s imminent campaign on the city of Mosul that June.
This is the information base we had to work on over in Washington. And back at the White House, that baseline led to a surprising series of events in August of 2013 – that historic chemical weapons attack, and the two weeks of pressure and crisis that followed.
That entire episode was framed by a single slip of the tongue from the president two years earlier, when he said the movement or use of chemical weapons would be a “redline” for action from the United States. We all remember this moment.
He didn’t specify whether that meant military action, or what sort of military action; but the use of the term “red line” ever since has indicated to the world the use of kinetic force.
It was ultimately a rhetorical mistake – the president didn’t mean to say it – that led US allies and political opponents to set upon the president a standard he never intended to set for himself. Holding the president to that remark meant, on a practical level, that anything shy of military strikes was going to be interpreted as weakness.
And that was going to be the case regardless of the quality of the policy that ultimately resulted from crisis negotiations with Russia: the most severe chemical weapons are now gone from Syrian land now occupied by ISIS.
That US-Russia deal is the only model we have for successful, actionable cooperation on Syria to date. The reason it worked was because the two powers were able to identify common ground where their strategic interests overlapped.
Moscow wanted to protect Assad from American air power, and Washington wanted the complete removal of weapons of mass destruction from a vacuum of law and order.
What we’ve found since that time is a willingness on the part of Russia to create facts on the ground beneficial to its diplomatic position at the negotiating table.
Kerry admits this, and says the administration recognizes it must also create its own diplomatic leverage – its own facts on the ground.
To summarize the position of the US and Russia, in short, it’s that the White House has believed and continues to believe that the costs of direct involvement in Syria outweigh any potential benefits.
Obama believes that multilateral institutions – NATO, the UN, task-specific coalitions – have all been founded by the US based on American principles, operate in the American interest, and are essentially cost-efficient tools of the United States. In the president’s words, multilateral institutions are force multipliers for American power.
In such a world, Moscow sees its position as a defensive crouch. It sees a global structure stacked against it, international institutions indeed favoring the United States, and it sees little choice but to use direct Russian power to protect its interests as it sees them under assault. Moscow denied any legitimacy to the 2011 protests in Syria, host of its only base in the Middle East; Moscow denied that Assad used chemical weapons in 2013; It denies today that Assad has lost any legitimacy whatsoever, 300,000 dead Syrians later.
Photo: An aerial view shows the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in July 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
These two political ideologies must somehow become secondary in the negotiations to come, taking place in Vienna, toward a cease-fire and a political transition in the Syrian civil war. Somehow, they must be put to the side, and the focus must become the identification of common US-Russian interests, just like we saw in the deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons. Because experts are in agreement that a cease-fire in Syria is Europe’s best hope for an end to the refugee flow.
And we’ll continue to debate the assignment of blame. Going forward, there will be those who argue president Bush is the father of ISIS, which has filled its ranks with former Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s old order. This argument contends the extremist army was born of the invasion in 2003. There will also be those who argue al-Qaida in Iraq was largely defeated in 2008; that Obama’s tolerance for the growth of a power vacuum in eastern Syria allowed for the resurgence of the group as Islamic State; that his pullout of all troops from Iraq in 2011 was politically motivated and strategically ill-advised.
Perhaps there are elements of truth to both arguments – that the extremes of engagement and disengagement have cost us equally.
Perhaps we should also focus some attention on the domestic responsibility of the governments and the peoples on the ground. One thing everyone seems to agree on – Democrat and Republican, Arab, European, American, Russian – is that the fight for the hearts and minds of the Syrian and Iraqi peoples will never be won by Western coalition forces.
Syrians must fight for Syria; Iraqis must fight for Iraq.
ISIS REPRESENTS neither. It is a group with which no one can negotiate. And it poses a direct and imminent threat to ordinary people living out their daily lives in the United States, in Europe and in Russia. So the only option, according to all of these governments, is to bring the fight to it; and the question is how to effectively do that when the larger Syrian war – between Assad and the liberation movement – continues to divide the international community.
Two broad frameworks were agreed upon in the past three years, and the most recent was the most promising: the Vienna communiqué, which puts specifics on an earlier document laying out international hopes for a cease-fire and a political transition.
Any cease-fire would not cover ISIS, al-Qaida in Syria or any other group classified as a terrorist organization. So Russia and the US-led coalition would still be allowed to target these groups.
This is actually the US goal: to turn all guns pointed at each other among Syrian rebels and the Assad government against ISIS. But it’s not yet clear whether Russia will be willing to end its air assault against those rebels, whom they label collectively as terrorists of the same ilk as ISIS.
If they succeed in brokering a ceasefire, and then in implementing that cease-fire, the next goal would be a political transition within six months and then, ultimately, nationwide elections in 18 months.
And should it reach that point – a major if – we do not yet know who will be eligible to run, and who will be eligible to vote. Of course, those 300,000 dead Syrians will be unable to cast ballots, and the refugees now in Denmark, in Germany, in Turkey will certainly want their voices heard. Keep in mind that four million Syrians have fled the country seeking refuge, and over seven million have been internally displaced. Together, that’s half the population. Who will pay for the logistical nightmare of registering and accounting for half a population voting in absentia? What body will verify the legitimacy of such a vote?
As difficult as that sounds, truly the greatest challenge is over Assad’s fate and his eligibility to run in the next election, because there are personalities involved. First and foremost, Assad must agree to leave. But there’s also no wiggle room for the United States. For the US to be true to its long-standing word – remember the president said “Assad must go” in 2011 – Kerry has no choice but to negotiate his exit; because if he has no legitimacy to rule, then surely the US cannot settle for an agreement in which he runs in a future election hailed as legitimate.
I’ve spoken with Russian officials who say they truly are not wedded to Assad; and Iran, which has invested deeply in Assad to maintain Shi’a control over 75 percent Sunni Syria, has also suggested it is willing to see him go. But no one is under any illusions as to precisely what that means. If Russia and Iran are willing to retire Assad, then it is because they see the potential to end and win the war with an election endorsed by the US that they can nevertheless control.
The US wants a genuine unity government in Damascus because it believes the war simply will not end unless the people who have long fought for Assad’s ouster believe they are democratically represented.
At the end of the day, this is what the war has always been about. Assad’s fate is at the heart of the conflict because the powers supporting him are not democratic – and do not support a democratic future for a unified Syrian state.
On a practical level, there will be no diplomatic breakthrough on Syria so long as there are no diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which have proxy armies fighting in the war.
And you know who was missing from the table? Syrians. The flags of nations flanked a glistening conference table in a lovely hotel, and yet not one was a banner representing actual Syrians.
The hope is that the Syrian liberation movement and the Assad government join the negotiations this month. That remains the goal.
THE VIENNA communiqué, I should add, was endorsed just days after the November 13 Paris attacks. And I do want to briefly discuss how we’ve come to a place where one of the wealthiest nations on Earth can be on its highest security alert status in a post-Charlie Hebdo environment, and still miss the sophisticated organization of a multipronged attack leveled against hundreds of civilians by at least a dozen people in its capital city.
Paris was a stunning example of what ISIS is capable of.
Islamic State has more foreign nationals in its ranks – more Western fighters – than al-Qaida ever had in total manpower at its peak. Think about that: That’s about 5,000 people. If you’re a Belgian or American citizen defecting to ISIS, the first thing it does is take your passport, in order to consider you for sleeper cell training. They are only a fraction of the roughly 100,000 fighters now devoted to the black flag, and they are exponentially better financed than al-Qaida ever was.
In the intelligence community, folks like to talk about hard and soft targets, hard targets being the security precautions you find at airports, and soft targets being everything else. With the bombing of Russia’s airliner and with the attacks in Paris, both hard and soft targets were successfully hit.
The truth of the matter is, democracies are soft targets. That’s the cost we pay for living in free societies. We’re expected to resurge, even to unify, after terrorist attacks.
But unlike in the immediate aftermath of September 11, the relentlessness and the viciousness of the current threat appear to be motivating some to respond based on fears and prejudice.
This not just an American challenge, a French one, a Danish one – or an Israeli one. But in the wake of San Bernardino, the American character was tested – by a single shooting, perpetrated by a Muslim couple, killing 14 people, the result of which has been a national debate over the banning of all Muslim travel to the US.
Do we proceed with policies that compromise on our freedoms? Must we accept a certain level of risk? To a certain extent, the debate itself is a victory for those seeking to terrorize liberal democracies – that we would ever consider compromise on such fundamental values.
Ultimately, policy on the Syrian refugee crisis is one of the last rungs on the policy ladder. This debate you’re having is a result of all those fateful policy decisions made along the way. Policy debate on climate change is about prevention; policy debate on crime, health, job growth, nuclear proliferation all focus on prevention of adverse forces from affecting working systems. So while it may be too late to discuss prevention – the crisis is here upon us now – we must treat the circumstances in which we find ourselves as a teaching moment; because the Syrian refugee crisis facing Europe is a challenge that started long before there were Syrian refugees bound for Europe.
And debate over this crisis, at the end of the day, is also a vehicle for much larger, much more challenging questions: Over security versus liberty, xenophobia versus multiculturalism, humanitarianism versus realism. But in the heat of our politics, and with distance from the realities of the war itself, it’s easy to lose sight of the effects of those politics on real, suffering human beings.
SO ROUGHLY a year and a half ago, I decided to go to the Syrian refugee camps myself. I went to Zaatari – the largest camp in Jordan, and by population now its second largest city – and I met, one after another, refugees who just wanted to go home.
But they knew what they faced at home. So they knew that was impossible.
What you have to realize is that refugees are not immigrants. I remember sitting in a UN trailer for a briefing at the camp one morning, and there were huge maps on the walls of the camp grid as it expanded over time to house over 80,000 people.
And one UNHCR official said to me as we sat down: To understand the refugee experience here, you must also understand what it’s like when they first arrive.
So I went to a registration facility, and I went through the halls and saw, in room after room after room, families being questioned and processed by strangers with whom they now trusted their lives.
I saw, in the main hall, Syrians packed in with all of their belongings sitting for hours, waiting in the heat to be processed.
And back at the camp site, I saw what some of those belongings were. One boy I met brought two of his books, which he’s now virtually memorized front to back. One woman carried with her a suitcase full of bottled cooking oil, afraid she wouldn’t have enough to cook for her family.
The ingenuity of some of the people I met was humbling. A couple of refugees had lodged requests of the Jordanian government for cement to pave roads, to build basic infrastructure and construct trenches for waste throughout the camp.
Amman was opposed to this, because the laying of cement at a refugee camp would transform it from a camp into a city. It would lend the place a sense of permanence. And Amman wasn’t comfortable with that, because like all other host countries of Syria’s refugees, Jordan expects these people to eventually return home.
But the refugees I met wouldn’t take no for an answer. So they tried to mix the concrete themselves. They ripped apart the gravel across the camp, and they harvested the rocks.
But because they plowed the ground for rocks, now they faced a new challenge, sandstorms, after removing that thin protective layer let loose the dust underneath.
So in this massive camp, on the one strip with shops that lend dignity to those living there, dust storms now rage through, and they dirty the shwarma racks, and they dirty the fruits, the baker’s window.
Yet the men who decided to come here and lend permanence to this place didn’t do so because they want to be Jordanian.
They don’t care where they land. They seek the dignity of a home and of work, and so the shwarma stand keeper peels off his dirty meat. The fruit stand keeper washes off the few items he has for sale.
When refugees flee, it’s not premeditated; it’s motivated by the threat of death, by the realities of war that are difficult for us to comprehend from afar. But that’s what has compelled leaders from our past to protect this class of people. Immigrants move to start a better life; refugees move simply to maintain any life at all.
That’s the humanitarian reality that I found in the field. But of course, there’s also the reality of fear, of vengeance, and of despair, which can manifest in any number of ways.
I met an 18-year-old named Yousef who showed me his home – a shipping container in the camp, essentially filled with nothing but a mattress. His family had been at the camp for 18 months.
And in his words: “We stayed until the last minute, until the killing started. Assad’s army murdered an entire family of 11 by the road, turning them to pieces, right before our eyes.”
That image has stayed with Yousef. It stayed with me. It also stayed with his father, who remained behind in Syria to fight with al-Qaida’s affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, against the government.
Ask yourself this: Who will Yousef become? Where is Yousef supposed to go? Who is supposed to take care of Yousef, who is now 20 years old with no education or employable skills? Should we hold against Yousef the fact that his father is a member of al-Qaida?
THE SECURITY concerns in Jordan, in Turkey and the West are real, because a single coordinated attack perpetrated by the disguised or radicalized has a gravitational effect on our politics. And several attacks pose existential challenges to democratic systems – the very systems we seek to protect. Precisely that fear, over the consequences of repeated 9/11 or Paris-style attacks, led to over two trillion dollars in US spending on defense and homeland security. It led to France declaring war.
The countries of Europe face unique challenges because of their size and demographics. If Denmark, Sweden or any other country has concrete evidence pointing to trouble from the past where societal integration has failed, then surely new questions arise: over why past efforts have failed, over where taxpayer dollars will go the furthest to help these refugees, over fairness; and of course, over how to define the role of a small country in solving a worldwide problem such as Syria.
Because all countries have a role to play. That’s why, first and foremost, we must all embark on that retrospective together – this discussion on prevention. Because the simplest way to decide the fate of young men like Yousef is to avoid the scenario in which he faces this crossroads at all.
But since the crisis is here upon us, now, we also have to decide what sorts of societies we want to live in when answering questions over Yousef’s fate. Are we better off or worse, leaving folks like him in a camp in Jordan? Do we as a society owe him anything at all?
Regardless of the unique challenges of any one country, we can state as fact that there are Syrian refugees who are victims of war protected under international laws written specifically for moments such as this. But we live in a world – and we must acknowledge this – where there is also an organization that seeks to take advantage of our sympathies. We know that’s why ISIS is printing passports. More than they are the enemies of Austrians and Canadians, and Swedes and Poles, ISIS is the enemy of Syria’s refugees.
And for that reason, the root cause of the conflict you seek to end is not the Schengen Agreement, but the Syrian civil war. Because Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is not a product of refugees, but ultimately a result of the world’s failure to prevent this situation in the first place. ISIS will persist without unity and courage. And the children of ISIS are the children we, in the world that respects life and individual liberty, are now failing to reach first.
In the process of preserving the justice of that cause, can we afford to turn our backs on those we have vowed to protect only, thus far, in principle? We know the security risks are real; the challenges of radical religion are entrenched; the purity of war refugees is sometimes impossible to prove. Inaction is tempting, when the risks of action run so high.
But the values of true democracies are not elusive. The moral imperative democracies prescribe is clear. And the protection of those values requires clarity, heart and courage, when faced with an evil seeking to deny them.
Thank you. The author is the Washington bureau chief of The Jerusalem Post.