Archive for May, 2011

[Originally published in  the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus]

Syria is a complicated place. Like just about every other modern-day “country” in its region, it has been conquered and reconquered by all the major culprits, Persian, Roman, Greek, Ottoman as well as others.

Since World War II, Syria has evolved much like the other countries in the region. It has survived periods of severe instability and pure repression. In its first 10 years of existence, it went through four constitutional rewrites and 20 separate cabinets.

It suffered through numerous military coups and suffered often under martial law. An emergency law, which effectively ended most of the protections afforded to its citizens by its various constitutions, was declared in l962 and lasted until 2011. In short, throughout its existence, Syria has been the victim of invasion, plotting, coups, instability and chaos.

Like Iraq, Syria is another example of rule by a repressive minority. Syria is roughly 74 percent Sunni, 16 percent Shiite (Alawites) and 10 percent Christian and “others,” including a very few Jews. The Alawites are a mystical minority of Shiite Islam. They came into power with Hafez al-Assad in 1970, which was something of an unwelcome surprise to the three quarters of the population that was Sunni and had held power in Syria for centuries.

The Assad years were anything but rosy for Syrians. His rule was characterized by automatic repression of any opposition. This, of course, was made doubly difficult and doubly repressive by the minority status of the Alawites in Syria. Assad ran a pervasive internal security apparatus comprising thousands of agents, all of whom were reporting primarily on real and imagined dissent.

During the period, he is accused of having been responsible for literally thousands of extrajudicial executions of Syrian citizens. Perhaps the most memorable of these was the Hama massacre in February 1982, when the Syrian army put down a revolt by Sunnis in Hama; it is said that 10,000 to 40,000 Sunni civilians were killed and the city almost completely razed.

In foreign affairs, modern Syria has been involved in the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars with the Israelis. It has been in the forefront of the opposition to Israeli occupation of Palestine, financing and assisting both Hamas and Hezbollah.

Lebanon, which is considered by Syrian irredentists to be rightfully theirs, has been a constant target for their military and political action. In recent times, during and even after the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990, Syrian troops were invited into Lebanon by partisan factions seeking support from the Assad regime. Particularly sensitive and contentious even today is the popular belief that in more recent years Syrian agents assassinated a pro-Western Lebanese prime minister and several other prominent leaders regarded by Damascus as hostile to Syria’s historic ambitions to control Lebanon.

Now Syria is under new management. Hafez al-Assad’s son, Bashar, has been president of Syria since 2000 when his father died. As Bashar had studied in Great Britain as an ophthalmologist, there were some hopes that Syria might enjoy a less repressive rule under his hand.

That has not proven to be the case. The fact is that he is a minority Alawite working in a government with fellow minority Alawites who are generally resented by the majority Sunnis whom they rule. They have ruled for the past 40 years because they have stuck together and terrorized the majority Sunnis.

There are neighbors who have conflicting stakes in the current Syrian rebellion. For example, anti-American elements like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, which have been closely allied to and supported by Syria, are finding today that many of their youthful members are sympathetic to the protesters being ruthlessly suppressed by the Assad regime.

The result here is simple and pervasive. The Sunnis who are now in fairly full rebellion against the sitting Syrian government are not going to be handed the reins of power. The Alawites will fight them to the end, if only to save their own lives.

We have no dog in this fight. The Syrians, whether they rid themselves of the Assad government or not, have no history, no experience, no training in anything we Americans would recognize as politically attractive or worth actively supporting.

Direct American intervention of any kind and at any level would simply risk being drawn into another potentially costly and bloody civil war in which vital U.S. national interests are clearly not at stake.

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The old saw tells us that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.  But that really isn’t true.  A terrorist is a  terrorist and an insurgent, or freedom fighter, is an insurgent. If we are able to stick to labeling them on the basis of what they actually do, rather than what we think they represent, we will be able to keep them straight and stand a much better chance of dealing effectively with terrorism.

Insurgencies are movements designed to overthrow existing governments.  Some are popular and have pretty good prospects for success. Some are not. Generally they spring from within populations.  If they are successful, it is because they generally represent the population’s views and thus have their support.  That makes them very difficult to defeat, particularly by a foreign government.

It is extremely difficult to define “terrorism” largely because it is such an emotional subject.  The United Nations has been unable to do so. Having said that, there are certain characteristics that are helpful in identifying terrorists.  They use violence and asymmetrical warfare as their primary tools.  They are not typically organized like insurgencies, but rather resemble politically oriented covert action groups. They use their terror psychologically for maximum impact to intimidate populations rather than simply kill individuals.  Finally, they are non-state groups.

Historically, governments have been far more successful against terrorist groups than they have been against insurgencies, primarily because insurgencies tend to enjoy more support from local populations

Today’s American foreign and domestic counterterrorism policies have been built on the “Global War on Terror” or (GWOT).  The Bush Administration labeled everyone it didn’t like a “terrorist”, never taking the time to differentiate between terrorism and insurgency.  That was our first mistake. The Taliban, despite the fact that it commits terrorist acts, is essentially an insurgent organization. Yet, until recently, they were constantly referred to as terrorists, perhaps because we needed terrorists for our GWOT in an Afghanistan where there were hardly any Al Qaeda members left.  Even though Afghans generally hate Taliban policies, and with good reason, they will often chose them over us if they are forced to do so.  We are, after all, the foreigners in the fracas.

Our second mistake was in deciding to “solve” our terrorism problems with the military might that had so brilliantly served us during the preceding fifty years.  In employing a military response, we were using an asset that had been designed in the Second World War to sweep across northern Europe in an attack on Germany and then further fine-tuned during the Cold War to sweep across Germany and Poland to defeat the USSR.  How we figured that was an appropriate tool for dealing with the new terrorism is hard to understand.  The answer probably lies in the fact that the military establishment wanted a piece of the action, and all it had to offer was its sword.

Until the early May operation that dispatched Osama bin Laden, the only example we had that argued that massive military response might not be the best approach, was the initial invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.  In that operation, a handful of special operations troops accompanied by a small number of intelligence officers, kicked off a blitzkrieg that ended in very short order with the literal destruction of Al Qaida in Afghanistan and, coincidentally, the defeat of the Taliban.  Remember, this was the “GWOT”.  Afghanistan initially had nothing to do with insurgencies, only with 9/11 and the terrorists.  Even though it all went south with the subsequent invasion of Iraq, the lesson was there to be studied, absorbed and implemented.


In 2010, the Rand Corporation reviewed the findings of its own 2008 study of 648 terrorist groups that existed around the world between 1968 and 2006.  It concluded that of those groups, 43% were absorbed quietly back into the environments in which they had been active, 40% were defeated by police and intelligence operations and 7% by military confrontation.

In Islam, as elsewhere, true terrorist groups most often are involved in activities that are dangerous to the general population.  Such groups, as in the case of Al Qaeda, often include members who are foreigners, who have goals inimical to the local population’s goals, or serve non-local causes. In the case of Al Qaeda, they often kill Muslims, a sin under the Koran. In short, they do not necessarily spring from and represent the ideas and desires of the local population.

Terrorists normally operate clandestinely in their local environments, trying to avoid identification by local populations. In fact, they often conduct operations designed to pit one portion of the population against another, simply for the purpose of creating chaos.  That was part of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) operational approach under Abu Musab al Zarqawi. AQI provocations were designed specifically to goad Shia into attacking Sunnis or vice versa, simply to keep the pot boiling.

When terrorists are the object of an essentially clandestine response like the one we conducted in Afghanistan in early October 2001, it is they alone, not the local population that are being targeted. That fact gives operational advantages to the special ops personnel and non-military police and/or intelligence officers working against them and permits local resident neutrality or even support for the local authorities.

When terrorist operations become known to local populations and are recognized as threatening or opposed to their interests, those populations often turn against them, as was the case with AQI at the beginning of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, when the Sunni “Awakening” began to methodically wipe them out.

In direct contrast, when terrorists are confronted with military power, particularly foreign military power, the entire equation changes.

Let’s start here by stipulating that what America seeks from local Muslims in the struggle with radical Muslim terrorism, is optimally their support or, failing that, their neutrality.

As we know from our own experiences in the Middle East, American military confrontation tends to force the local non-combatant population to make a decision about whom to support, particularly if the local population believes that our “terrorist” is his “insurgent”. Will it be the foreigner or the local?  This is the main reason that accurate labeling is so critically important and that a non-military approach is preferable in cases of terrorism. Is he a terrorist who is not seeking the same goals as the population and can be justly opposed? Or is he an insurgent who is on the same page with the population and must be supported?  If he is a terrorist he is less likely to be accepted or protected by the locals.  If he is really an insurgent, he will be one of them and they will back him against the foreigner.

If we misidentify out of carelessness, stupidity or even willfulness, as may very well have been the case in the past, we will likely employ the wrong techniques against the troublemaker, whatever he really is.


As if all this terrorism/insurgency discussion is not enough, our problems in the Middle East are made especially difficult by the facts that exist both there and here in America.  The historical, political and cultural differences between us are numerous and important.

The Middle East is rife with ongoing conflicts.  Sometimes they are absolutely overt, sometimes they are less obvious, but they are always there and have been for millennia.  The Shia/Sunni split, the Persian/Arab competition for hegemony in the Gulf, the anomalous position of the Kurds. The hangovers of the Crusaders, Western imperialism and US Regime change operations in Syria and Iran have all added up to a region in which, today, the notion of liberal democracy is quite foreign and its bearer is viewed with extreme suspicion.  There is little history of democracy. The peoples of the region, particularly given their tribalism, ethnic and sectarian differences have no experience that would prepare them for the freedoms and responsibilities that must come with self-rule and liberal democracy.  What they do have is a Koran which gives any believing Muslim an exhaustive blueprint for life.

On the other side of the ledger, we have a United States that is ruled by its own American exceptionalism and eager to save the world by exporting its model.  Yet, we are a wildly impatient, ADHD nation, short on planning, and married to short-term political timetables. In foreign affairs, we tend to evolve policies for American domestic political reasons, eschewing the realities that exist abroad.  We talk democracy and support the most repressive rulers in Islam. For over sixty years we have failed miserably to bring peace to Israel and Palestine. We are so bereft of influence there that the sides are preceding in their own respective directions without reference to America.   Yet, our goal seems to be a desire to install “democracy” in a world that has little reason to want to accept it.  As a result, we are seen as opportunistic, narcissistic and hypocritical.

Many, if not most of these problems have solutions that would help us.   The “Arab Spring” will change the Middle East forever, as the rebellions against existing authority have completely stolen the show from Al Qaeda, rendering their dreams of a medieval caliphate virtually obsolete.  The rebellions have brought some sort of self-determination to those people who outlast the tyrants that have recently ruled them.  If we can bring ourselves to accept self-determination in place of democratization as a viable goal for them, active nation-state hostility to us will subside.

What we can do completely on our own is change our counterterrorism policy.  When we attack terrorism with our military establishment, as we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2003, terrorism morphs into insurgency. That insurgency then demands our involvement in the export of democracy and nation building, all of which are matters at which we are demonstrable failures.

We are proposing to do all of this in the face of popular American disinterest in and lagging support of our adventures in the Middle East.  Reality is additionally determined by a burgeoning national debt, ongoing national economic problems, a wildly expensive military establishment built for wars we do not face and acute national taxophobia.

We need to acknowledge that our current use of military might against terrorism in acutely counterproductive. In the absence of that constant military presence, local governments will find it politically more acceptable to share Al Qaeda as an enemy than they do today.  We need to concentrate on our liaison relationships with friendly countries, our production of intelligence on all terrorism activities and our training and deployment of the kind of special operations teams that we have recently seen operating so successfully.

The effectiveness of those teams and of a program based on them, coupled with the absence of our provocative uniformed military in battle all over the region, will give us a better shot at solving our problems in the region.  At the same time, a change in counterterrorism tactics and the deployment of a greatly reduced, but uniquely competent force should permit the saving of billions of dollars and the opportunity to put our economic house in order here at home, while it raises our prospects of diminishing the future threat of terrorism.

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[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus]

Israel’s only hope for the continuation of its Zionist dream of a democratic, Jewish state lies in a solution in which both Israel and the Palestinians have their own separate states — the “two-state solution.”

Absent such a solution and because of demographic imperatives, Israel will become either a non-democratic, apartheid state or a state in which Jews will be in the minority.

This situation has existed since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, after which Israel took possession of East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and large chunks of the West Bank, all previously held by Palestine under the 1948 U.N. partition of Palestine.

In those 44 years of occupation, the two-state solution has been extremely elusive. Israel would seem to have been driven by its desire to hold on (illegally, under international law) to those territories and to expand them through its “settlement” policies, where Palestinian motivation appears to have been driven by their desire to “throw the Israelis into the sea.” Arab countries have fully backed the Palestinians, and we Americans have done the same for Israel. Under those circumstances, there has never been enough momentum for success, and recently, America’s ability to actually influence the situation has faded with our increasing military involvement in the Middle East.

Now, suddenly, the game has changed. Instead of continuing to rely on the United States for support, which has never materialized, and to push for a two-state solution, which is clearly of little to no interest to the Netanyahu government, the Palestinians have changed course. Hamas and Fatah have decided to make nice. They have finally given up on any help from America. Sensing increased international frustration with a lack of progress toward a two-state solution, as mirrored in what many countries see as Israeli intransigence, they have decided to try to gain recognition as a state under the United Nations.

If this succeeds, as appears likely, the Israelis will be put in the position of occupying parts of a fellow member state of the U.N.

Where would that leave Israel in the international community?

As the author of much if not most of the violence against Israel, Hamas has always been a total anathema to Israelis. Israel has flatly refused to deal with them in any way other than militarily.

All of this has happened without any participation of the United States. We have, in fact, continued our attitude that Israel can do no wrong, despite the obvious fact that either Israeli or Palestinian intransigence will likely lead to a total change in the nature of the state of Israel, leaving an undemocratic apartheid state that would be difficult for Americans to support, or a minority Jewish state impossible for Israeli Jews to support.

Common sense would make one think that the two-state solution would be more and more attractive. But where it may be so for Palestinians and, by extension, Arabs, it would appear not to be for the majority of Israelis. In addition to that, the Palestinians have now apparently made peace between their two previously hostile factions, Fatah and Hamas.

The Netanyahu government has said it will never negotiate anything with Hamas. At the same time, it has pulled out all the stops in trying to block the Palestine recognition move in the United Nations. In doing that, it has cranked up all its “Israel right or wrong” allies, particularly here in the United States, to fight against any consideration of U.N. recognition of Israel, even though that flies directly in the face of hopes for the continued existence of a democratic Jewish state that Israelis and Americans will continue to support.

This leaves only one question. What are the true goals of Israelis and their American supporters who are so stridently opposed to a two-state solution? The only answer that holds water is that they are more interested in the acquisition of Palestinian land than in the Zionist dream. Nothing else makes any sense.

A clue to this phenomenon may lie in the nature of recent Jewish immigration to Israel from the Soviet Union and Russia. In both cases, the raw material that has come to Israel has had neither interest nor experience in democracy. Given their backgrounds, they are the direct antithesis of the Zionists who created and nurtured that Israel.

Zionism may be dead or dying. Today’s Israelis and their supporters appear far more interested in growing the size of Israel than in its democratic nature or its Zionist founders’ dreams.

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