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Sept. 16 2014 11:56 AM

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies Against ISIS but Aren’t Ready to Admit It Yet

We are in an era of unacknowledged invasions. In military operations ranging from the Russia’s incursion into Eastern Ukraine to the activities of Iranian military advisors in Iraq, governments refuse to admit what they’re up to even when those engagements are widely reported in the international media.


As the U.S. begins carrying out its first airstrikes against ISIS under the new strategy announced by President Obama last week, we’ve seen the rise of another related phenomenon: the unacknowledged alliance.

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Sept. 12 2014 3:22 PM

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

The autumn of nationalism is finally upon us. Following the Scottish independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 18, Catalonia is holding a vote on Nov. 9 on whether to secede from Spain. The situation is a bit different there, since the Spanish government considers the vote illegal and Madrid will likely not recognize the result if Catalans support independence, setting the stage for a constitutional crisis.

But Catalonia isn’t the only region taking inspiration from Scotland. European regions with separatist tendencies from Flanders to Venice to Greenland are keeping a close eye on the Scottish result.


Could Scotland trigger a wave of disgruntled regions to cut ties with their mother countries? A number of commentators have been reading global significance into next week’s vote. The referendum is at its core “a fight over the world of multicultural modernity that makes today’s global economy possible, but also leaves many people with a deep hunger for the sense of national identity it obliterates,” writes Neil Irwin in the New York Times.

While not commenting specifically on other movements, Scottish independence leader Alex Salmond has also said that this is the start of a trend. In an interview last year, he told me that open markets and the decreased risk of invasion have meant that “the disadvantages of smallness have disappeared” for European countries.

I’m a bit skeptical of this line of thinking, which seems to return every time a new country declares independence—a pretty rare occurrence since the end of the Cold War. There was much talk of the “Kosovo precedent” after 2008. The independence of South Sudan in 2011 had some pundits predicting a “wave of self-determination,” which never really came to pass.

The fact is, there’s still a bias among international institutions and governments against adjusting existing borders (though governments still often disagree of where those borders actually are). When it happens, the circumstances are usually pretty exceptional—in the cases of South Sudan, Kosovo, and East Timor, independence came after years of ethnic violence and concerted international pressure. So, while some overly cautious officials in Beijing may be nervous this week, Scotland’s independence vote probably doesn’t actually mean that much for Xinjiang or Tibet.

While I don’t have a strong opinion on the wisdom of Scottish independence, there may be a positive international precedent in peaceful national separation. As we’ve seen from recent events like ISIS’s efforts to obliterate the legacy of Sykes-Picot in the Middle East and Russian annexation of Crimea, borders usually aren’t redrawn without military aggression and bloodshed. Czechoslovakia aside, there are relatively few precedents for peaceful “velvet divorces” in recent history. A prominent example of nations parting (relatively) amicably might not be the worst thing in the world.

Sept. 11 2014 5:01 PM

What Does Scotland Want Independence From, Exactly?

With a referendum scheduled for Sept. 18, Scotland may be set to dissolve more than 300 years of political unity with the United Kingdom. Who wants independence, why now, and how does the United Kingdom work anyway? Watch the video above to find out.

Sept. 11 2014 3:14 PM

Syrian Government: Go Ahead, Bomb Our Country!

Since the United States started getting serious about military action against ISIS, politicians and policymakers have worried that such an initiative would play into the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In his speech last night, President Obama was careful to stress that strikes against the group would not in any way imply that the United States was allied with the Syrian government. “In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people—a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost,” the president said. Instead, he said, Washington would step up its efforts to strengthen the Syrian opposition.

But, in somewhat trolling fashion, the Syrian government today welcomed its new allies to the fight, with Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad telling NBC News that his government has “no reservations” about American strikes against ISIS in Syria:

“When it comes to terrorism, we should forget our differences… and forget all about the past,” Mekdad said. “It takes two to tango...We are ready to talk."

Of course, it’s fairly apparent that the Syrian government avoided attacking ISIS for months and began bombing its positions only after the international community saw the group as a major threat. U.S. officials are almost certainly not going to sit down with Assad’s government, but my guess is that as this operation escalates, we’re going to hear a lot more from the regime about its “partners” in the war on terror, the Americans and Europeans.

Another interesting wrinkle is the ramifications of this Amerian operation for Assad’s backers in Moscow. Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said today that if the United States bombed Syrian territory “without the Syrian government’s consent,” it would “complicate international operations and will pose problems for Russia as well as for many other countries respecting international law, including China.”

But Russia may be the only country bothered by Obama’s campaign. It appears the Syrian government isn’t going to object too much to the operation. China, which has concerns about its own citizens cooperating with ISIS, seems likely to offer quiet support. Even Iran seems finally to have found an American war in the Middle East it can get behind.

This is, after all, something fairly different than previous U.S. interventions. The goal is not to help rebels overthrow an autocratic government, but to preserve the status quo in the face of a new destabilizing force. The “sovereignty caucus” of autocratic powers that opposed previous U.S. operations, of which Russia was the most vocal member, may not exist this time around.  

Sept. 11 2014 10:08 AM

Obama: We Need to Fight ISIS, But Not for the Reasons You Think

Overall, I agree with my colleague Fred Kaplan’s assessment that, in the plan he laid out for an offensive against ISIS, President Obama is doing “as close to the right thing as the mess of the Middle East allows.” Still, I want to focus on one of the odder aspects of this administration’s case for war: the fact that the president is arguing for the necessity of destroying ISIS without making a strong case that it poses a threat to the U.S.:

While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our Intelligence Community believes that thousands of foreigners—including Europeans and some Americans—have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.

A lot of facile comparisons are being made right now between this initiative and the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it’s true that Obama will now likely be the second president in a row to leave an incomplete war in Iraq to his successor. But that caveated, hypothetical scenario in the president’s remarks—“these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks”—is a long way from “we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Obama’s advisers have been even more skeptical about the ISIS threat to the U.S. homeland. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Wednesday, just hours before the president’s speech, that “at present, we have no credible information that [ISIS] is planning to attack the homeland of the United States.” Matthew Olsen, departing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, has made almost the exact same comment, as did White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

ISIS has, of course, killed two American citizens in a very public way. But with the very notable exception of Mehdi Nemmouche, the French citizen who returned from fighting in Syria to attack a Jewish museum in Brussels last May, the much-discussed threat of ISIS’s international fighters returning to their home countries to carry out attacks has been theoretical.

As David Sterman pointed out in an analysis for the New America Foundation this week, “no one returning from or seeking to join a Syrian jihadist group has even been charged with plotting an attack inside the United States.” Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, the Florida man who returned to the U.S. for a time after training in Syria in 2012 and was under surveillance by the FBI, tried but failed to recruit friends to the cause, and eventually returned to Syria, where he carried out a suicide bombing. If anything, greater U.S. involvement in the conflict will make ISIS—a group that until recently was most concerned with local territorial gains—more rather than less likely to target U.S. interests and citizens.

But even if the administration isn’t selling ISIS as a clear and present danger to American citizens, those citizens seem to believe that it is. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll published this week, 91 percent of Americans saw ISIS as a “serious” threat to the vital interests of the United States. This could be due to a number of factors, including the visible brutality of the killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the tone of U.S. media coverage of ISIS, the more alarmist assessments made by politicians like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, or the utter nonsense voiced by politicians like Rick Perry.

ISIS fighters could pose a direct threat to the U.S. in the future, but to their credit Obama and his senior officials haven’t been overstating it. If anything, Obama’s case for intervention rests on an argument that his critics often accuse him of ignoring: that despite presenting minimal immediate danger to Americans outside the region, ISIS poses a unique and serious threat to the stability of the Middle East. If left unchecked, its spread will lead to more violence and chaos that will threaten U.S. interests in the long term, and that any serious international effort to stop it will require the participation of the world’s pre-eminent military power.

But that’s the kind of argument that goes over better among think tank scholars and magazine feature writers than with the public. A war-weary American populace has come to favor yet another open-ended military commitment in the Middle East because it believes that ISIS poses a threat to America. Even if Obama himself hasn’t been hyping that threat, in this case he’s been aided politically by his most vocal critics, who certainly have been.

Sept. 10 2014 6:27 PM

How Come This Time Obama Doesn’t Think He Needs Congress’s Permission to Bomb Syria?

Ahead of his speech tonight, the Washington Post reports that President Obama “does not believe he needs formal congressional approval” to use airstrikes in Syria.

Today, a number of commentators, from both the left and right, seem to be making versions of the argument David Frum—a guy who knows a thing or two about convincing the American public that bombing the Middle East is a good idea—puts forth here:

It seems like only last year that this president was asking Congress for authority to bomb Assad. Twelve months later, he will bomb Assad’s enemies. Why does bombing one side of a war require congressional permission, while bombing the other side does not? The administration doesn’t answer, because nobody is asking. Something must be done! This is something! Let’s do this!

There are good reasons to be wary about U.S. intervention in Syria, and I suppose it’s fair to bring up the president’s inconsistency here. But when you look at historical precedent, there’s nothing all that surprising going on here, and the difference between these two situations—bombing Assad and bombing Assad’s enemies—isn’t all that mysterious.

We know, from past example, that this president—and Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan before him—is not opposed to taking military action without congressional authorization. In addition to the numerous covert actions taken against terrorist groups under the increasingly flimsy authorization of 9/11-era legistlation, the administration argued in the face of criticism from Republicans as well as liberal Democrats that no approval was necessary for a months-long military campaign against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government in Libya.

In September 2013, when the administration briefly considered military action against Bashar al-Assad’s government following a massive chemical weapons attack, the decision to go to Congress was a break in precedent and treated at the time as something of a novelty.

Obama went to Congress in part because public opinion was overwhelmingly against bombing Syria. But as I wrote at the time, it doesn’t seem like the political fallout from a brief punitive bombing campaign would have been all that great if Obama had just gone ahead and ordered it.

By going to Congress, the administration suggested that it never wanted to carry out the strikes, but felt pressured to act to preserve U.S. credibility due to the “red line” over chemical weapons that Obama had set months earlier. Putting the decision in the hands of Congress gave the White House an out and the problem eventually went away—for the president and his advisors, not for Syrian civilians—thanks to a surprise Russian-negotiated deal under which Assad turned over his chemical weapons.  

Things are very different this time around. ISIS’s rapid expansion combined with the disturbing videos of beheaded American journalists have had an impact on American public opinion. Those factors, too, seem to have changed the president’s assessment of the threat posed by the group. Recall that back in January, Obama dismissed concerns over a (then) al-Qaida-linked group taking over Iraqi cities with the analogy, “if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

It’s certainly valid to argue that just because ISIS have proven themselves to be more Kobe than jayvee, it doesn’t mean that airstrikes in Syria are a prudent policy. And there’s a good debate to be had about the role of Congress in authorizing military action in an age of asymmetrical threats and drone warfare. But let’s not kid ourselves: Shooting first and asking Congress later has become the rule, not the exception.

Sept. 10 2014 1:09 PM

Did We Wait Too Long to Intervene in Syria?

After three years of reluctance, President Obama now appears likely to push for direct U.S. military intervention in Syria. He will lay out his strategy for defeating ISIS in a televised address to the nation tonight, and according to senior officials, he is prepared to authorize airstrikes targeting the group within Syrian territory.

This development seemed inevitable as soon as the president shifted to talking about destroying or permanently degrading ISIS. But as the president gets set to make his case to the public and a jittery Capitol Hill, events are moving quickly in Syria, and shifting in such a way that Obama may have already suffered a major blow on the eve of his announcement.


The administration’s reluctance to get involved in the conflict is understandable, but by waiting as long as it did, it may have made the task of helping the groups on the ground far more difficult. In short, if Syrian rebel groups collapse—as it appears might be happening—the U.S. will be, whether it admits it or not, choosing the lesser of two very extreme evils, tacitly supporting Bashar al-Assad in defeating ISIS and regaining control of his country.

While the Syrian civil war may once have been viewed as a fight between Assad’s regime and “the rebels,” it’s now much more complicated than that. The major groups now fighting for territory and political influence within Syria include (but are not necessarily limited to): the government; ISIS; the Western-supported Free Syrian Army; the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra; the Kurdish PYD, which has gained control of significant territory in areas near the Turkish border; and the Islamic Front, an umbrella group of Islamist groups distinct from both the “moderate” rebels of the FSA and the hardline jihadists in ISIS and Nusra.

The last group on that list has gotten relatively little attention, but recent events show it could be critical. A bombing in northern Syria decimated the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham, a long-established and well-organized rebel group that was one of the primary organizers of the Islamic Front alliance.

As the Carnegie Endowment’s Aron Lund puts it, the group served as a “missing link between radical Salafi-jihadism and the type of mainstream and Syrian nationalism-infused Islamists that Western and Gulf state powers preferred to work with—a powerful ‘swing voter’ in the struggle over the ideological direction of Syria’s insurgency.”

It’s not yet clear who carried out the attack, but the hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham had been increasingly cooperating with more moderate groups in the fight against ISIS. The explosion killed a dozen of the group’s top leaders, and it’s possible it will now simply cease to exist, leaving its members up for grabs for other groups. This could mean that Islamist groups and the internationally supported “moderate” rebels will increase their cooperation to counter ISIS and Nusra, or that these “swing voters” may just disperse to both sides.

Lund notes that the group has been playing a prominent and highly visible role in the defense of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the non-ISIS rebels’ last major urban stronghold. The remaining rebels in Aleppo are under pressure from both government forces and ISIS, with devastating effects for the civilian population.

“As Aleppo goes, so goes Syria’s rebellion,” argues a recent analysis from the International Crisis Group. “The city is crucial to the mainstream opposition’s military viability as well as its morale, thus to halting the advance of the Islamic State.”

The analysis suggests that an ideal development would be a cease-fire between the government and rebels in order to roll back ISIS. But as that seems impossible, “the only realistic alternative is for the opposition’s state backers to improve support, qualitatively and quantitatively, to credible non-jihadi rebel groups with roots in Aleppo.”

There are some indications that with recently provided weaponry from the outside, the Free Syrian Army and some allied Islamist groups have launched offensives against ISIS in the area. But it seems pretty unlikely that they can continue to fight a two-front war without a significant increase in international support.

U.S. priorities in Syria have clearly shifted from aiding the rebels fighting Assad to containing the growth of a dangerous new threat in ISIS. But a robust rebel movement is still necessary both as an ally against ISIS and for the administration to make the moral and political case for intervention. The “rebels” these days, though, are a fractious and fluid grouping that includes some groups, like Ahrar al-Sham, that U.S. policymakers would usually find pretty unpalatable. The political case for intervention may be building, but practically, it’s only getting more complicated.

Sept. 5 2014 2:14 PM

Could Iran Be Part of America’s New Coalition of the Willing?

At the NATO summit in Wales today, the United States announced the formation of a new 10-nation “core coalition” of countries cooperating to battle ISIS. Besides the U.S. the countries involved are Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Turkey. The Turkish role could prove particularly critical, as it will likely serve as a staging ground for anti-ISIS operations, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is heading to Ankara next week.

Today’s news is further indication that some military operation in Syria may be coming. (That operation probably isn’t imminent, though, as intelligence is still being gathered.) Secretary of State John Kerry said today that leaving ISIS “in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us."


This NATO announcement comes as the BBC is reporting that, according to sources in Tehran, “Iran's Supreme Leader has approved co-operation with the U.S. as part of the fight against Islamic State.” According to the report, “Ayatollah Khamenei has authorized his top commander to co-ordinate military operations with the US, Iraqi and Kurdish forces.” Iran’s foreign ministry denied the report, though as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour notes, this cooperation may already be happening on some level.

At the moment, the new “core coalition” doesn’t include any Middle Eastern countries, though the United Arab Emirates has already, not surprisingly, indicated its support. Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron have both ruled out any cooperation with Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, though it’s hard to see how a military operation in Syria targeting ISIS but leaving Assad’s forces in place does anything but strengthen his position.

The case of Iran is trickier. There are obviously key points of conflict between Iran and the United States, not least of which is the country’s controversial nuclear program. A new round of talks about that issue are set to begin in New York this month. Any open acknowledgment of cooperation between the countries with regards to ISIS would likely make the U.S. Congress, hardliners in Tehran, and the Israeli government go absolutely berserk.

But if the two nations continue to escalate the fight against a common enemy, it’s going to require some level of coordination. I don’t see Iran being formally invited into Obama’s “coalition of the willing.” 

Sept. 5 2014 1:37 PM

Sorry, Did We Invade Your Country?

On Friday, a temporary cease-fire between Ukraine and the rebels went into effect. Minutes later, journalists received an email from the rebels referring to themselves as “Novorossiya” urging them to attend a press conference in Moscow explaining why Ukraine is breaking the cease-fire. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, issued a statement on why NATO is a threat to the peace process.

Putin is a master of the art of changing the conversation. It takes a lot of skill to turn Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad into a defense of international law. Or to justify the arrest of dissident rock musicians as a crackdown on anti-Semitism.


But Russia’s escalating military involvement in Ukraine has provided an opportunity for Putin and his allies to elevate their excuses and obfuscations to a sort of art.

Some highlights:

Feb. 26: Putin orders military drills near the Ukrainian border under the pretext of protecting the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea.

Feb. 28: Russia invades Crimea  … sort of. With masked gunmen seizing key military installations throughout the region, Moscow denies launching a military offensive in the region. Meanwhile, Russian parliament considers a law that would make it easier for Russia to add to its territory, just in case a foreign country happens to “not have effective sovereign state authority” for some reason.

March 1: The upper house of Russian parliament approves the use of military force in Ukraine. This is justified by a member of the parliament as a measure to “protect the Crimean population from lawlessness and violence.”

March 18: After a referendum in which 96.7 percent of Crimeans voted to become part of Russia—remaining part of Ukraine wasn’t an option on the ballot—Russia annexes the territory. "In our hearts, we know Crimea has always been an inalienable part of Russia," says Putin.

April 6: Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the Eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv. (They are taken back over by Ukrainian forces two days later.) Russia says its presence during military exercises on the border not far from the pro-Russian rallies was in keeping with international norms. The Ukrainian government says it believes Russia is funding the rebels, a claim Russia denies.

April 14: Putin and President Obama speak on the phone. The Russian leader, who continues to deny playing any role in supporting the rebels, urges his American counterpart to exert pressure on Ukraine to stop it from using force.

April 15: Putin tells German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war, and that this is a problem created by Kiev.

April 17: Putin finally admits that Russian troops were in Crimea, and adds that he hopes he does not need to use his Duma-given right to send Russian troops to eastern Ukraine (or, as he is now calling it, Novorossiya, or “New Russia”).

April 19: In April, “little green men”—masked fighters believed to be Russian special forces—begin appearing in Eastern Ukraine. Russia denies any connection.

April 23: Russia warns it will respond if its interests are attacked in Ukraine.

April 24: Putin warns that use of Ukrainian troops within Ukraine’s own territory will have consequences.

April 28: Russia condemns sanctions and assures the U.S. it will not invade Ukraine.

May 2: Russia blames Ukraine for the demise of the Geneva Peace Plan, an agreement that included “demobilizing militias, vacating seized government buildings, and establishing a political dialogue that could lead to more autonomy for Ukraine's regions.” But then, Russia never admitted any role in the separatists’ actions, and thus could take no responsibility for their adherence to the plan.

May 6: Russia rules out new Geneva talks and says that there's no point because Ukraine wasn't following the peace plan anyway.

May 7: Russia says its troops have been pulled back from the border. The White House says there’s no evidence of this.

May 19: Russia again says it is withdrawing its troops, this time because their spring training has come to an end.

May 31: Ramzan Kadyrov, president of the Russian republic of Chechnya, denies sending Chechen fighters to Ukraine but says some may have gone “voluntarily.”

June 19: Two weeks after Petro Poroshenko becomes president of Ukraine, NATO says Russian troops are back on the border. No they aren't, says Russia.

July 13: Russia says Ukraine killed a Russian civilian by throwing a shell over the border. Ukraine denies this. Russia threatens airstrikes against Ukraine as Ukraine says Russian military vehicles were attempting to cross its border.

July 17: Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over Eastern Ukraine. It is widely believed that pro-Russian rebels are responsible, and that they were supplied with Buk surface-to-air launchers by Russia. Russia says responsibility lies with the country whose airspace the plane was flying through, and that this wouldn’t have happened had Kiev not resumed "its military campaign" in Eastern Ukraine.  The Russian media also suggests a number of explanations for the incident, including that it was the Urkainian military attempting to shoot down Vladimir Putin’s plane; that it was shot down to hide the truth about HIV; that Israel was somehow involved; and that it was the Illuminati.

Aug. 6: Russia bans food imports from the European Union, the U.S., and other countries that pushed through sanctions against Moscow on account of its involvement in Ukraine. The food bans led to skyrocketing food prices for Russian consumers. “This retaliation wasn't easy for us,” explained Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. “We were forced into it.”

Aug. 11: Russian truck convoys enter Eastern Ukraine. Russia claims the trucks are carrying much needed aid to the region, though Kiev and Western governments view it as a deliberate provocation.

Aug. 22: NATO says Russian troops have entered Ukraine. Despite satellite and photographic evidence, Russia denies it.

Aug. 26: After Ukraine captures a group of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil, the Russian military says they were there “by accident.”

Aug. 28: A separatist rebel leader says Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine but are doing so on their vacation.

This might be amusing if it weren’t for the body count. According to the United Nations, at least 1,200 people were killed in the fighting in Ukraine between mid-July and mid-August. But then, Ukraine and the West are probably to blame for that.

Sept. 5 2014 11:03 AM

The Great English Gin Bender

Gin and England go together like, well, gin and tonic. But how did a Dutch beverage become the national drink of England? To learn more, watch this animated history of England's great Gin Craze, which explains why London went on an epic five-decade gin bender back in the 18th century.