Sunday, August 30, 2015

Thoughts on Battles for Hearts and Minds

A prominent expert is critical of the president because "the Obama administration is driving Syrians right into the arms of the Islamic State." He points to Iran as a big part of the challenge. "Iranian policies in Syria and Iraq have made vast swaths of both countries safe for jihadis," says he. And "Obama might improve his odds in Congress if he can demonstrate that he really gets it when it comes to the Iranian regime."

Yeah. Right. Barack Obama's odds in Congress sank from low to zero when the sun set on the mid-term elections. Not since Richard Nixon resigned to avert impeachment has a Congress been more opposed to an elected administration.

Syrians are being "driven" somewhere for sure. It's not into the arms of ISIS but to the nearest escape from the place once called home, a country run by a second-generation tyrant whose willingness to torture or exterminate whole communities to maintain control was and continues to be unimaginably savage. He was there before ISIS and will be there when and if ISIS is gone.

ISIS is a military threat for sure. And it's possible that "the Pentagon knows how to throw sand into the gears of Assad’s mass homicide machine without dropping the 82nd Airborne Division into Damascus. The Defense Department’s own wariness about lifting a finger against Assad ought to be overcome, or at least mitigated, by its obligation to defeat the Islamic State."  But to repeat a tired phrase, this really is a fight for hearts and minds. And in those two vital fields of battle the Islamic State is making the kind of progress that military actions only make worse.  Hearts and minds are strategic targets for sure, but they are not "won" by force. The core question is not whether someone is willing to kill for his beliefs but whether he (or she) is willing to die for those beliefs. 

This morning I came across an old joke with this punch line:
'Honey, my father died in France during World War II, I lost my husband in Korea , and a son in Vietnam . All three died so you could have the right to stand here and bad mouth our country. If you touch me again, I'll stick this umbrella up your butt and open it.'
It's been around at least since 2008 and is still sailing along the social media interwebs -- Facebook, viral emails -- as fresh as a stand-up comedian. Fans of this kind of humor outnumber those of us who don't see the humor by a wide margin. Why? Because most people believe that questioning authority is worse than disagreeable. It's downright treasonous.

The hearts and minds of super patriots are made up, not to be confused by new ideas.  Meantime, the battle for more open hearts and minds is being quietly and persuasively waged by those we call extremists. Wikipedia is but one of many places to learn how those battles are being fought -- one person at a time.
Homegrown or imported terrorism is not new to the United States or Europe. The United States has uncovered a number of alleged terrorist plots that have been successfully suppressed through domestic intelligence and law enforcement. The United States has begun to account for the threat of homegrown terrorism, as shown by increased volume of literature on the subject in recent years and increased number of terrorist websites since Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, began posting beheading videos in 2003. A July 2009 document by the FBI estimated that there were roughly 15,000 websites and web forums that support terrorist activities, with around 10,000 of them actively maintained. 80% of these sites are on U.S.-based servers.
Getting back to Syria, here is a video toward the end of the Arab Spring showing how Syrians feel about Bashar Assad.


I'm just a layman, an old man blogging in retirement, so the reader is invited to study a couple of links closely and come to whatever conclusions they suggest.  Should anyone imagine that throwing sand into the gears of the Syrian military is a viable option, these links suggest to me the challenge is somewhat more complicated.

These two writers, Peter Harling and Greg Djerejian, are card-carrying experts on diplomacy in general and MENA in particular.  These two links are from 2012, the year which was to see the twilight of the Arab Spring.  In both cases the Syrian situation is too complex to be distilled into a phrase or two.  Bear in mind that when these two analyses were being written, ISIS was still in the incubator stage.

Beyond the Fall of the Syrian Regime
by Peter Harling , Sarah Birke

February 24, 2012
The struggle over Syria pits two symmetrical narratives against each other. For the regime, its supporters and its allies, Syria’s is an immature, if not disease-ridden society. They posit -- with evidence both real and invented, and generally blown out of proportion -- that Syrian society shows sectarian, fundamentalist, violent and seditious proclivities that can be contained only by a ruthless power structure. Remove Bashar al-Asad, and the alternative is either civil war or the hegemony of Islamists beholden to Turkey and the Gulf and sold out to the West. Regime loyalists argue that society is not ready for change and, in fact, deserves no better than its present shackling. Hizballah and Iran, rather than cultivate popular support to ensure enduring influence, have placed all their chips on the regime’s ability to crush what, early on, they chose to see overwhelmingly through the lens of foreign conspiracy. 
The regime’s opponents, by contrast, posit that any and all change is desirable, given the regime’s own nature. Over its four decades in power, the Asad dynasty has increasingly treated the country as family property, plundering its wealth for redistribution to narrowing circles of cronies. In line with divide-and-rule traditions inherited from colonialism, the regime has cynically strengthened its grip by nurturing fractures within society, keeping state institutions weak for fear they might underpin genuine national sentiment, and setting up a security apparatus heavily staffed with members of one minority, the ‘Alawi community. It has suppressed dissent with at times extreme brutality, as typified by the 1982 shelling of Hama, which left many thousands dead. Regime opponents argue that, without Bashar al-Asad, Syria will finally be free to express its stifled economic potential, its natural communal harmony and its aspiration to an open, democratic political system. For their part, Gulf states and the West see in regime change a solution to all problems, not necessarily within Syria itself, but throughout the region: At last, Hizballah, the Lebanese resistance movement that relies on Syria as a transit route for weapons, would be neutralized, Iran badly weakened and the so-called moderate Arab states empowered.

By Greg Djerejian
February 26, 2012
...the apple does not fall far from the tree, when it comes to the Assad family. While subduing the insurrection to date has not been conducted with quite the same singular, brutish decisiveness his father (or, more particularly, his uncle Rifaat al-Assad) had manifested in the full-bore, scorched earth campaign that was 1982 Hama, the incremental escalation and toll is ratcheting up mercilessly to equal these historical horrors on an aggregated basis. In particular, the increasingly incessant shelling of districts like Babr Amr in Homs (not to mention the deprivations visited on forlorn towns like Idlib and Dara’a)—with zero regard for the many scores of civilians felled weekly—showcases tactics in equal measure cowardly and repulsive in the extreme.
The stench of death rising daily from Homs is an indelible black mark on Bashar, and were there even a smidgen of legitimacy left the regime could pretend to enjoy, this increasingly crude campaign has extinguished any semblance of same. One must add to this gory list documented use of torture (including against children), use of fragmentation mortar devices without warning, mass executions, among other horrific fare documented in a recent U.N. report. Indeed, it is manifestly clear that despite rosy optics around his ophthalmologist background, his attractive British-born JP Morgan alumnus wife, and such Knightsbridge style trappings—the man has now been nakedly revealed to be nothing more than a mass-murdering thug--happy to visit such horrors on his own people, no less--in a manner which already warrants war crime charges. Given these grim realities, we are facing an onslaught of elite opinion that ‘something must be done’ to remedy the increasingly intolerable situation....

Then there's this... 

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