The ISIS convoy that got away

An ISIS fighter on the bus to safety. (Photo: PRI)
An ISIS fighter on the bus to safety. (Photo: PRI)

 

So just how tangled is the tangled mess of the Syrian civil war?

The Wall Street Journal reported today on an incident that serves to illustrate the twisted web of typically contradictory but occasionally and uncomfortably overlapping interests on display amongst the myriad forces on the ground in Syria.

You need to read the article to get the full gist, but here’s a quick summary:

A convoy carrying hundreds of ISIS fighters and their families had been stranded for weeks in the Syrian desert, blocked by American airstrikes from reaching ISIS-controlled territory in the east of the country, near the Iraqi border. The convoy was pulling out from an area along the Lebanese border after an agreement was reached last month between ISIS, the Lebanese government, the Syrian government, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia backed by Iran. At the request of Russia, the US halted its airstrikes, allowing the convoy to reach safe haven.

The whole thing had noted security analyst Max Boot scratching his head this morning.

For the record, I don’t think this incident reflects the sort of misplaced priorities that Boot implies. It does, however, reveal the simple truth that there is no obvious common objective that all the players on the Syrian stage are pursuing. I’ve noted before the sheer complexity of the constellation of groups fighting the war, and their mixed and conflicting motives and objectives.

Just for starters consider that Russia, the United States, the Syrian government, Hezbollah, the Lebanese government, and Iran are all theoretically on the same side in the fight against ISIS. Except that from the beginning of its military intervention in the Syrian civil war, Russia has aimed way more of its firepower against rebel forces that aren’t called the Islamic State.

Because Russia’s primary interest isn’t fighting ISIS at all, it’s in keeping its Syrian client, Bashar Assad, in power. So far, the civil war is playing out just the way Russia wants. And so it was only natural that Russia would call off US warplanes from the skies around the ISIS convoy so that Syrian regime forces could move through the area, with Russian air cover.

The Assad regime’s game is also an obvious one: liquidate any rebel factions, and their civilian supporters if necessary, that could represent a plausible alternative to his government that would also be acceptable to the international community. If the only option to Assad is ISIS, then it’s a fair bet that the world will hold its nose and let the Assad regime stand, war crimes and grotesque atrocities notwithstanding. This is why Syrian regime forces rolled past that ISIS convoy without engaging it. They have other fish to fry.

Lebanon and Hezbollah have complimentary but not identical objectives in all this. Both want Islamic State fighters as far from Lebanese territory as humanly possible. That’s where it ends for Lebanon. But Hezbollah is also fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, and so their interests are largely aligned with those of the Syrian state, its Russian patron, and their own Iranian, which conveniently also wants to see Assad retain his grip on power.

That brings us to the United States and its decision to accede to the Russian request to pull its aircraft away from the ISIS convoy. It’s too easy, and frankly too politically convenient, to suggest that this is just more Trump cozying up to his pal Vladimir Putin. And it’s not even necessary given that Trump has already made decisions that more meaningfully align with both Putin and Assad’s interests.

There’s a simple explanation for this one. US warplanes were withdrawn as part of the “deconfliction” protocol with the Russian which was put in place to ensure that American and Russian military forces would not find themselves in a situation where they might bomb, shoot at, or shoot down each other. With the Syrian army moving under Russian air cover, US forces were called on to pull out, and in keeping with protocol, they did.

Pentagon officials weren’t happy about letting that convoy go, but when the request came in from the Russians, they followed the rules of the agreement and US forces stood down.

Nothing nefarious here, just one more reminder of the complex mess the United States has gotten itself into in Syria.

Trump’s turn on Afghanistan

Trump is expected to announce more US troops for Afghanistan tonight.
Trump set to announce more US troops for Afghanistan tonight.

 

There is no military solution in Afghanistan, at least not one the United States can impose without incurring tremendous cost, both in human and in more prosaic monetary terms.

In fact the war there has already cost the lives of nearly 2,2000 American service men and women along with nearly 2,000 civilian contractors. More than 20,000 Americans have been wounded in Afghanistan in the 16 years we’ve been fighting there.

And we’ve already spent something north of $800 billion in direct appropriations to fund the ongoing Afghan war. War-related spending, including for construction, weapons procurement, and medical care, amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars more.

So what policy solution will President Trump unveil tonight when he makes his address to the American people? He is expected to announce the deployment of an additional 4,000 US troops to Afghanistan, but to what end?

This won’t tip the military balance, though it may help to forestall a complete collapse on the part of Afghan government forces and delay a return to power by the Taliban.

A negotiated solution would seem the only answer here, but no agreement is viable without the backing of the neighboring Pakistanis, and they will inevitably insist on a power-sharing arrangement that includes the Taliban in some new post-conflict scheme for governing Afghanistan. This is something that the United States is far from keen on but which Pakistan sees as vital to protecting its own interests.

There’s no indication that the Trump administration is prepared to enter into negotiations on terms that Pakistan would accept, let alone the Afghans themselves.

As Paul Waldman points out this afternoon at the Washington Post, Trump is now the third president to face the very same dilemma with the same array of choices before him. And he’s likely to come to the same conclusion as the others:

The status quo stinks.

There is no better way forward.

Let the next guy figure it out.

Whatever he announces, one thing is for sure. Trump’s the president. That makes it his war now.

Trump’s idea of “very fine people”

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The poster for last Saturday’s rally. See the end of post for the SPLC’s guide to the symbols.

 

Who were those “very fine people” that President Trump chose to defend in his unhinged press conference Tuesday marching alongside in Charlottesville last Saturday?

Here, courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a quick overview of the people and groups the president can’t bring himself to denounce:

  • Jason Kessler, the organizer of the the Unite the Right rally, which culminated in the murder of counter protester Heather Heyer at the hands of a self-avowed Nazi, is a white nationalist blogger who bills himself as a journalist, activist, and author. He made his initial splash by trying to unseat Charlottesville only black city councilman.
  • Richard Spencer is another white nationalist whose clean-cut appearance made him something of a media sensation when he first appeared around the fringes of the Trump presidential campaign. His goal is to create a white ethno-state in North America, a white homeland for European-Americans. A so-called “academic racist,” He dropped out of a PhD program at Duke in modern European intellectual history. Spencer has been connected to Trump White House policy adviser Stephen Miller.
  • Christopher Cantwell is an alt-right anti-semitic shock jock who is the focal point of the disturbing Vice News documentary on the violence in Charlottesville. Watch and see for yourself the views that he espouses and which Trump tacitly defends if not outright supports.

  • Matthew Heimbach is a white nationalist who graduated from Towson State University in 2013 with a degree in history, where he founded a campus chapter of Youth for Western Civilization and the White Students Union. He is considered emblematic of the new face of white nationalism in America. He is the training director for the neo-Confederate League of the South.
  • Michael Hill is the neo-Confederate Southern nationalist founder of the League of the South which is dedicated to the revival of what he considers traditional Southern heritage leading to eventual secession from the United States. In 2007 he wrote this: “If the scenario of the South (and the rest of America) being overrun by hordes of non-white immigrants does not appeal to you, then how is this disaster to be averted? By the people who oppose it rising up against their traitorous elite masters and their misanthropic rule. But to do this we must first rid ourselves of the fear of being called ‘racists’ and the other meaningless epithets they use against us.”

These are just some of the leading figures on the American racist and neo-Nazi far right who took part in the events in Charlottesville. The hundreds marching with torches and literally chanting Nazi slogans Friday night, and then filling the streets Saturday with their shields, helmets, and clubs were drawn from a wide range of neo-Nazi, white nationalist, white separatist, and white supremacist groups, including these:

So let me ask you the question that someone ought to ask President Trump: What kind of “very fine people” do you know who would have marched alongside this crowd?

To decipher the symbols in the Unite the Right rally poster at the top of this post, I again turn to the SPLC. From left to right, the groups represented are: (K) “Kekistani,” (AC) “Anti-Communist,” (L) “Libertarian,” (N) “Nationalist,” (I) “Identitarian/Identity Evropa,” (SN) “Southern Nationalist,” (NS) “National Socialist,” and (AR) “Alt Right.” The National Socialist flags depicted include Traditionalist Worker Party and Vanguard America.

I never want to post this again

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I first posted this almost exactly two years ago, Sept. 15, 2015. I am heartbroken that what we saw in the early days of Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House has come to deadly fruition only eight months into his presidency.

I never want to feel compelled to post this again.

***

I watched American History X with my son this evening. He was born 17 years ago, the same year the movie came out, 1998. And I’m saddened by how little we have changed as a society.

I’m saddened that the vile speech that Ed Norton’s skinhead character Derek Vineyard delivers to his disaffected disciples (watch the clip below) could have been made by any number of Donald Trump’s white nationalist supporters.

I’m saddened that you could exchange the film’s references to Rodney King for Michael Brown and the movie literally could have been made yesterday.

I’m saddened that we are still bringing up our children in a society so paralyzed by fear of change, fear of the other, that we dehumanize and demonize those we should embrace as brothers and sisters.

I’m saddened that I have friends whom I love who cannot see their own prejudice for what it is. I am saddened that I struggle to keep my own prejudices in check.

I want to believe that we can be better than this, that I can be better than this.

I hope and pray that my kids, and yours, will tomorrow be better than we are today. Because we cannot go on like this. We just can’t.