China Foreign Policy Short Form

Understanding Modern China Through Mao

Mao Zedong, the father of the Chinese Communist Party, casts a long shadow on modern day China despite his death nearly a half century ago. Like any shadow, China and its current president Xi Jinping trail alongside the towering figure in both form and substance.

Understanding politics in modern China requires reckoning with two of the most significant legacies of the Mao era – the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s and the cult-of-personality developed around Mao himself through mass media and propaganda during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. One could draw a straight line from these foundational events to Xi Jinping’s current attack on intellectualism, his brutal suppression of dissenting voices, and attempt to exert singular control over Chinese society through ideological indoctrination.

The Anti-Rightist campaign began in 1957, less than ten years after Mao and the CCP founded the People’s Republic of China. It was in response to the Hundred Flowers Movement launched the year before when the CCP encouraged Chinese citizens and intellectuals to openly express their opinions and criticize the government to help the party correct its mistakes.

This brief liberalization of political expression in China proved to be a bridge too far. Mao found the overwhelming criticism from the masses to represent a threat to the party’s control of Chinese society and responded by ordering a brutal purge of so-called “rightists”.

Anyone who favored capitalism over collectivization or had criticized the CCP was accused of plotting to overthrow the government. An estimated 550,000 people were rounded up and either publicly criticized through “struggle meetings”, sent to prison camps for re-education, or even executed[1]. The actual number of victims may be between 1-2 million or more[2].

Up to one million Uyghers are currently being held in re-education camps in Xinjiang, China to prevent religious “extremism” and “terrorist activities”, and to ensure “ethnic unity” and national security.

The Anti-Rightist campaign was a game-changer not only because of how arbitrary the persecutions were – indeed nearly 98% of all who were labeled “rightists” may have been wrongly applied[3] – but that it was aimed at the mainstream, intellectual class not the fringes of Chinese society[4]. It effectively shuttered intellectual dissent and turned China into a de-facto one party state.

Today, Xi Jinping is echoing the legacy of the Anti-Rightist campaign through a similarly repressive crackdown on intellectual discourse. In 2013, Xi’s comprehensive reform plan effectively banned any discussion of constitutional democracy and universal values – it was the biggest ideological campaign to restrict speech since Mao’s death[5].  

As a result, hundreds of professors, lawyers, and activists have been targeted for promoting so-called Western concepts like a free press, civil society, and rule-of-law – acts that have resulted in their harassment, jailing, exiling, and disappearance for “subversion of state power”[6],[7]. Access to China itself has shriveled with scholarly researchers facing surveillance, intimidation, and restrictions on entering the country or accessing archival research materials[8].

Xi is merely borrowing Mao’s suspicion of the intellectual class – if left free to protest or critique the party then they would risk unraveling the hegemonic control of the CCP over the Chinese people.

How were both leaders able to pull off this repressive form of governance? One of Mao’s enduring legacies is the extent to which he was seen a veritable demi-god in the eyes of the public – an infallible, heroic leader who rescued China from the imperialist West[9].

Students carry Mao’s banner and sing songs in his praise during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

The deification of Mao saw its fever pitch during the Cultural Revolution when he urged young people to purge China of the capitalist and revisionist elements in society and impose “Mao Zedong Thought” as the dominant ideology of the country[10].

The People’s Liberation Army deployed expansive propaganda and mass media to build a cult-of-personality around Mao. Songs glorifying him were sang in schools and played in loudspeakers in public, the “Little Red Book” of Mao’s quotations was almost mandatory to be held by everyone and quoted extensively, even a loyalty dance was created for people to express their love and devotion to Mao[11].

Xi is now in the process of leveraging the party’s vast propaganda apparatus to create his own god-like image as a way to engender support from the public in the face of totalitarian control.

In 2019, the CCP launched a mobile app some have dubbed as the “Little Red App” to promote Xi’s ideology where party members and civil servants must log points in every day[12]. Starting in August 2021, “Xi Jinping Thought” has been integrated into the Chinese school curriculum from primary school through college with Xi’s ideology being taught to “cultivate love for the country, the Communist Party of China, and socialism.[13]” At the most recent Central Committee meeting of the CCP, Xi’s ideology was declared the “essence of Chinese culture.[14]

After having eliminated term limits for himself, Xi now stands as ruler-for-life of China[15]. Equipped with the lessons from Mao, he stands ready to quash political dissent, expand the party’s control on every facet of Chinese society, and cement his legacy in the same strain of revolutionary immortality that Mao Zedong imprinted into generations of Chinese citizens.

[1] Roderick MacFarquhar, “The Politics of China: Sixty Years of The People’s Republic of China”, pg. 82, Cambridge University Press, 2011,

[2] Christine Vidal, “The 1957-1958 Anti-Rightist Campaign in China: History and Memory (1978-2014)”, HAL Archives, April 25th, 2016,

[3] Roderick MacFarquhar, “The Politics of China: Sixty Years of The People’s Republic of China”, pg. 83, Cambridge University Press, 2011,

[4] Andrew Mertha, “Lecture – The Anti-Rightest Movement and the Great Leap Forward”, Module 3 – Maoism and Its Legacy.

[5] Cai Xia, “The Party That Failed: An Insider Breaks With Beijing”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2021,

[6] Tom Phillips and Ed Pilkington, “No country for academics: Chinese crackdown forces intellectuals abroad,” The Guardian, May 24th, 2016,

[7] Human Rights Watch, “China: On “709” Anniversary, Legal Crackdown Continues,” July 7th, 2017,

[8] Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Rory Truex, “Repressive Experiences among China Scholars: New Evidence from Survey Data,” The China Quarterly, 242, June 2020, pp. 349–375,

[9] Ian Buruma, “Cult of the chairman,” The Guardian, March 7th, 2001,

[10] Ronald McLeod, “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Mao Zedong’s Quest for Revolutionary Immortality”, Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects, 1990,

[11] South China Morning Post, “How Mao Zedong built up his cult of personality – from new Frank Dikötter book How to be a Dictator,” October 13th, 2019,

[12] Iza Ding and Jeffrey Javed, “Why Maoism still resonates in China today,” The Washington Post, May 29th, 2019,

[13] BBC, “China schools: ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ introduced into curriculum,” August 25th, 2021,

[14] NPR, “China’s Communist Party, with eye on history, gives Xi Jinping the same status as Mao,” November 11th, 2021,

[15] James Doubek, “China Removes Presidential Term Limits, Enabling Xi Jinping To Rule Indefinitely,” NPR,  March 11th, 2018,

About The Author

Chetan Hebbale is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. focused on international economics, climate change, and sustainability.

Prior to this, he spent over 4 years at Deloitte Consulting working on technology and strategy projects at the CDC and U.S. Treasury Department.

He is a native of Atlanta, GA and attended the University of Georgia.

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China Climate Change Foreign Policy Policy Memo

Three Ways China Can Tackle Its Emissions

Executive Summary

China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2 emissions, by far. It represents nearly a third of all emissions by itself – more than double the U.S. and the next seven nations combined[1]. As a result, China is under intense pressure to meet its emission targets set out in Glasgow at COP26. Achieving these targets will hinge on the ability for the central government in Beijing to influence a sprawling network of provincial and sub-provincial governments to make emission reductions in their local areas.

China’s emissions come from three primary sources: industrial production (50%), the power sector (40%), and the transportation sector (8%)[2]. Here, we lay out a roadmap to inform diplomatic negotiations on how the Chinese government can reduce emissions from these sectors through center-local coordination on policy reforms in energy investment, production, and consumption. These reforms include stronger permitting rules against coal plants, synchronization of their national emissions trading system, and incentives for electric vehicles (EVs).


By some fiscal measures, China is the most decentralized country in the world[3]. Its “quasi-federal” system was born out of decentralization reforms in the late 1970s which have created a constellation of central and local institutions with varying, sometimes conflicting, responsibilities and mandates for energy and climate decisions[4]. The strength of these mandates largely depend on which agency is issuing and enforcing them.

Historically, regulating GHG emissions originates with China’s most salient environmental concern – air pollution. This fell under the purview of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) until 2018 when the government transferred its climate related responsibilities to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE)[5]. In July 2021, China reinstated the NRDC as the primary planning body on climate change and has tasked it with creating a roadmap for how China can meet its emission targets.

Since 2007, China had established energy intensity reduction targets whose enforcement has been handed down to local governments and are factored in their performance evaluation[6]. There has been significant geographic variation in local enforcement due to competing incentives for economic growth and development. 

Reform Recommendations

In its roadmap, the NRDC should recommend that the central government:

Reclaim authority on permitting rules for new coal-fired power plants. Authority to permit new coal plants was decentralized to the provinces in 2014 which resulted in a rapid increase in coal permits across the country[7]. China is now the world’s largest consumer and producer of coal[8]. By reclaiming permitting authority, Beijing can restrict new plants and set capacity reduction plans in line with the global pledge to “phase down” coal[9]. China can expect resistance from coal mine owners and provinces with coal dependent economies as they are highly dispersed and enjoy autonomous control – the central government will face substantial difficulty without credible punishments for permitting violations.

Harmonize local emissions trading system (ETS) pilots to transition into the new national carbon market. In 2013, China launched seven provincial/municipal ETS pilots in preparation for the rollout of their national carbon market in 2020 which is to be run by the national MEE department. In these pilots, local governments found ways to bypass fees and lessen the impact of carbon prices on their preferred investments like coal. Thus, in rolling out the national market, MEE will need to contend with those local governments skirting the rules by standardizing and closing loopholes around carbon allowance allocations, compliance, and data measuring, reporting, and verification (MRV) systems.

Require local governments to expand license plate quotas to encourage uptake of electric vehicles. Local governments have broad control over the transportation sector which they have used to limit emissions by forbidding certain types of cars from entering city centers each day through license plate requirements[10]. The central government can require provinces to expand the scope of these requirements in two ways – (1) only allowing cars with EV license plates at certain times, days, and lanes and (2) allowing cities to waive license plate restrictions all together for EVs so they’re not subject to any driving restrictions compared to gas-powered cars[11]. Beijing could complement these regulations with expanded central tax incentives to further increase uptake of EVs on China’s roads.

Taken together, these reforms give China a significant boost in their efforts to slow climate change as they directly take on local resistance to cutting major sources of emissions. At Glasgow, China pledged to peak its CO2 emissions before 2030[12], thus it has roughly eight years to course correct the diverging local interests of the world’s largest population. Failure to do so will likely sink global efforts to avoid a 2°C rise which will precipitate severe environmental deterioration.

[1] BBC, “Report: China emissions exceed all developed nations combined,” May 7th, 2021,

[2] Columbia University In The City Of New York, “Guide to Chinese Climate Policy: Emissions by Sector and Sources,”

[3] Michael Davidson, “Creating Subnational Climate Institutions in China,” Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, December 2019,

[4] Ibid. Davidson

[5] David Stanway, “China shake-up gives climate change responsibility to environment ministry,” Reuters, March 13th, 2018,

[6] Ibid. Davidson.

[7] Ibid. Davidson.

[8] Sara Schonhardt, “Energy crunch raises questions about China’s devotion to coal,” E&E News, October 13th, 2021,

[9] Connor Perrett, “World leaders at COP26 strike agreement to ‘phase down’ unabated coal and call on wealthy nations to double funding to vulnerable nations,” November 13th, 2021,

[10] Wang, Rui, “Shaping Urban Transport Policies in China: Will Copying Foreign Policies Work?” Transport Policy, 17(3), 147–152, 2010,

[11] Sandalow, David, “Guide to Chinese Climate Policy,” Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, 2018,

[12] Climate Action Tracker, “China,” November 3rd, 2021,

About The Author

Chetan Hebbale is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. focused on international economics, climate change, and sustainability.

Prior to this, he spent over 4 years at Deloitte Consulting working on technology and strategy projects at the CDC and U.S. Treasury Department.

He is a native of Atlanta, GA and attended the University of Georgia.

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Foreign Policy Short Form

Why Economic Sanctions On Iran Will Fail This Time

In 2018, this essay was chosen as the winner of a 500 person competition within Deloitte’s State Department. I was asked to give a talk on my essay at a quarterly leadership meeting among the senior Deloitte partners and managing directors at the State Department.

Following the talk, I was recommended and selected to a national presentation forum at Deloitte to give this talk to a wider audience spanning the government and commercial practices given the salience of the issues across industries that Deloitte supports. This talk gives a historical perspective into how the U.S. emerged to become the world’s most dominant economy, and how it uses economic instruments today to compete with other countries on the global stage.

President Trump’s decision in May to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran has set the stage for a consequential showdown with our global partners. The other countries who helped negotiate the agreement with the U.S., known as the P5+1, (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany), have resoundingly expressed their desire to stay in the deal and not break the agreement[1].

The question now is whether U.S.-imposed economic sanctions will compel the rest of the international community to follow our lead. The decision to comply with, or defy, U.S. sanctions will not only pose a critical test of our alliances, but will serve as a referendum on the strength of U.S. sanction power to affect the other major economies[2].

The State Department will play a leading role in defining the scope of the sanctions targets, building international support for these measures, and providing guidance to the Department of Treasury and Commerce on their implementation.

One of the primary sectors that sanctions will target is Iran’s oil and gas industry. The State Department announced last month that all countries importing oil from Iran must stop by November 4th or face sanctions themselves[3]. These will be the “strongest sanctions in history by the time we are complete”, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on May 21st [4].

The core of the U.S.’s sanctions strength lies in the power of the U.S. dollar and the central role that the U.S. plays in global financial markets. However, countries may attempt to circumvent sanctions by importing Iranian oil through alternative currencies.

Since the 1970s, oil has been sold in global markets almost exclusively in U.S. dollars[5]. This gives the U.S. enormous leverage against other countries, all of whom need oil to power their economies. The U.S. used this leverage as part of the sanctions regime from 2010-2015 where the U.S. cut off Iran from using the international payment system SWIFT to trade oil in dollar currency with other countries[6].

The core of the U.S.’s sanctions strength lies in the power of the U.S. dollar and the central role that the U.S. plays in global financial markets.

Considering this economic vulnerability, countries have been seeking alternatives to the dollar in international trade. In March of this year, China launched a yuan-denominated oil futures benchmark as a mechanism to buy and sell oil outside of the dollar payments system[7]. The new U.S. sanctions on Iran have already given the impetus for other countries to trade for oil in yuan rather than dollars[8]. European countries have also suggested that they will look for ways to subvert U.S. sanctions by creating alternate mechanisms to trade with Iran in euros instead of dollars[9].  

The cryptocurrency phenomenon sits at the center of this burgeoning movement away from the U.S. dollar. Countries like Venezuela and Russia openly declared this year that they are developing a state-sponsored digital token to evade U.S. sanctions and conduct international transactions outside the control of any central authority[10]. These movements have already influenced Iran whose central bank has just recently begun development on an indigenous Iranian cryptocurrency to insulate themselves from the new sanctions[11]

Ultimately, the ability for the U.S. to bring Iran back to the negotiating table for “a better deal” will depend on Europe and China’s willingness to comply with U.S. sanctions and cut Iran off from the global economy. This time around it looks as though the State Department will not only face far steeper challenges in deploying sanctions to coerce other countries into following our lead, but now must grapple with the emerging technologies that are being used to circumvent the global financial system entirely.

[1] Reuters, “Europe, Iran pledge to uphold pact without United States”,

[2] Holland, Ben, “U.S. Sanction Power May Be Reaching Its Limit”,

[3] Talley, Ian, “U.S. Toughens Stance on Future Iran Oil Exports”,

[4] Nelson, Louis, “Pompeo threatens Iran with ‘strongest sanctions in history’”,

[5] Islam, Faisal, “When will we buy oil in euros?”,

[6] Carter, Barry and Farha, Ryan, “Overview and Operation of U.S. Financial Sanctions, Including the Example of Iran”,

[7] Johnson, Keith, “China’s Bid to Upend the Global Oil Market”,

[8] Tan, Huileng, “Trump’s sanctions on Iran may be creating an oil trading boom — in China”,

[9]Nasseri, Ladane, “Iran’s Dollar Shift Offers Little Comfort as U.S. Exits Deal”

[10] Popper, Nathaniel et al, “Russia and Venezuela’s Plan to Sidestep Sanctions: Virtual Currencies”,

[11] Reuters, “Iran cryptocurrency project on track despite cenbank ban, minister says”,

About The Author

Chetan Hebbale is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. focused on international economics, climate change, and sustainability.

Prior to this, he spent over 4 years at Deloitte Consulting working on technology and strategy projects at the CDC and U.S. Treasury Department.

He is a native of Atlanta, GA and attended the University of Georgia.

Foreign Policy Investigative Report Long Form

How Our Middle East Policy Brought Trump To Power

When Pew Research Center set out to answer what the “top voting issue” was in the 2016 election, the first was the economy. The second was terrorism.

Gallup found that “terrorism and national security” topped the chart when it came to issues that both Democrats and Republicans cared most about. In the wake of ISIS-inspired terror attacks in Paris, 53 percent of Americans said that the United States should stop accepting refugees altogether (69 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats).

Unsurprisingly, a majority of these people voted for Trump and a lot similar minded people in the U.K. voted to leave the European Union.

In the last month there have been a number of explanations for how Trump stunned the world (including himself) and won the election. Most analyses have focused on the voting power of white working class voters, the anti-establishment fervor predominant in the nation, or Russia and the the FBI’s interference throughout election.

But very little has gone to understand the underlying fear that both Trump and the leaders of Brexit managed to tap into – the fear of terrorism, refugees and the religion of Islam. A fear that continues to this day as more ISIS-inspired attacks occur around the world.

People gather to protest against the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees at the Washington State capitol in Olympia
November 2015 protest against the United States’ acceptance of Syrian refugees at the Washington State capitol in Olympia. Trump and the leaders of Brexit successfully seized upon populist fears of immigration and terrorism from foreigners.

The hard truth is that this nationalist fear-mongering of refugees and immigration is a direct consequence of Western nations turning Middle East nations into failed states over the last 10-15 years across Democratic and Republican administrations. Donald Trump and Brexit are merely nativist reactions to the decisions that created the global refugee crisis and the spread of ISIS. 

We are well aware of the role of Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 to launch the expensive and on-going military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But 8 years has passed us by and the instability in the Middle East has gotten worse, not better. As we come to the end of Obama’s 8 year tenure, it is a good time to step back, reflect, and ask a more fundamental question.

What happened during Obama’s presidency where even more refugees are fleeing out of the Middle East and religious terrorist groups seem more powerful and dangerous than ever?

Unidentified man stands outside the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya following the infamous terror attack that killed 4 Americans in September 2012

The terror attack in Benghazi, Libya happened over 4 years ago, but its legacy has played a much larger role in this most recent election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump than most have realized.

Not because the infamous e-mail server scandal emerged from the Benghazi investigation. Nor for the repeated testimonies and largely partisan media scrutiny which hurt Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers going into the 2016 election.

When we look back on the Obama era, Benghazi should be remembered for its far more important reminder that one of the lasting legacies of the administration is the complete collapse of Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. And in their wake the rise of ISIS, whose presence and organizational leadership is the largest in these four countries. This is the reality which has produced today’s global refugee crisis and ultimately fostered the environment of fear which helped bring Trump to power.

If you are unfamiliar with the Benghazi controversy I will summarize it briefly.

During the Arab Spring revolution in 2011, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by a popular revolution with support from NATO, led by the United States. The country then descended into chaos with rival factions occupying different parts of the country.

Amidst the chaos, a terrorist attack against a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya killed 4 Americans in September 2012. Two were security contractors with the CIA and two were employees of the US State Department. One of whom was the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

The first controversy was whether the Obama administration tried to downplay or mislead the public a few months before his re-election by having top officials claim the event was a spontaneous protest to an American-made YouTube video mocking Islam, rather than a premeditated terror attack

As details of the events emerged, critics raised additional questions about whether the State Department had provided adequate security at the outposts in strife-torn Libya and whether high-level officials told back-up security forces to “stand down” rather than come to the rescue while U.S. personnel were still under fire.

The four nations which became failed states over the last 8 years and now have the largest ISIS presence in the world

There is one part of the controversy that this article will be focusing on: why were the 4 Americans who died in Benghazi even there to begin with? 

Last year, the Department of Defense declassified an intelligence briefing from October 2012, one month after the terror attack, which would explain quite clearly what the U.S. was doing in Benghazi after the fall of the Libyan government.

“2. During the immediate aftermath, of, and following the uncertainty caused by, the downfall of the ((Qaddafi)) regime in October 2011 and up until early September of 2012, weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port of Benghazi, Libya to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria. The Syrian ports were chosen due to the small amount of cargo traffic transiting these two ports. The ships used to transport the weapons were medium-sized and able to hold 10 or less shipping containers of cargo. 3. The weapons shipped from Libya to Syria during late-August 2012 were Sniper rifles, RPG’s, and 125mm and 15mm howitzers missiles. The numbers for each weapon were estimated to be: 500 sniper rifles, 100 RPG launchers with 300 total rounds, and approximately 400 howitzers missiles [200 ea – 125mm and 200ea -155mm]”

Why were weapons being shipped out of Libya and into Syria between 2011-2012?

Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, smiles at his home in Tripoli
Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens – first sitting ambassador to be killed since 1979

It was during this time that the peaceful demonstrations against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were devolving into an armed resistance.

The Red Cross officially declared the turmoil in Syria a civil war in July 2012. The attack at Benghazi occurred in September 2012. This was the beginning of the destructive Syrian civil war which has played out in front of our eyes for the last 5 years.

It had been no secret that the U.S. wanted Assad to go. But the much better kept secret was what role we played in the unrest in Syria turning into a civil war to begin with.

That secret began unraveling after the Benghazi attack exposed the presence of an undisclosed CIA annex that came under attack after the U.S. diplomatic outpost.

During the initial Benghazi hearings Congressman Devin Nunes asked CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper point blank whether the CIA was there to send weapons from Libya into Syria.

Nunes: Are we aware of any arms that are leaving that area and going into Syria?
Morell: Yes, sir.
Clapper: Yes.
Nunes: And who is coordinating that?
Morell: I believe largely the [REDACTED] are coordinating that.
Nunes: They are leaving Benghazi ports are going to Syria?
Morell: I don’t know how they are getting the weapons from Libya to Syria. But there are weapons going from Libya to Syria. And there are probably a number of actors involved in that. One of the biggest are the [REDACTED]

Nunes: And, were the the CIA folks that were there, were they helping coordinate that, or were they watching it, were they gathering information about it?

Morrell: Sir, the focus of my officers in Benghazi was [REDACTED]

While the redactions make it difficult to clarify who exactly was coordinating the operation and what role the CIA played in it, the highest levels of the US intelligence community were no doubt aware it was happening. 

But if it was not just the U.S. overseeing the arms transfer, then who else was involved? Famed investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an explosive article in the London Review of Books in April 2014 uncovering the much larger story behind Benghazi.

“The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida.

The “rat line” to transfer weapons from Libya, to Turkey, into Syria

By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities.

Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer.

Retired Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were the two CIA contractors killed in Benghazi

One does not need to take Seymour Hersh’s word for exposing the international gun-running operation taking place.

Anyone who has done a preliminary amount of research into the Syrian war would easily discover that for the past 5 years the United States has worked in tandem with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm the Syrian opposition to overthrow Assad.

This partnership has its roots in Benghazi.

On September 6th, 2012, a Libyan-flagged vessel called Al Entisar was received in the Turkish port of Iskenderun, 35 miles from the Syrian border. The ship carried heavy weaponry including surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADs which found their way into the hands of Syrian rebels. These sophisticated weapons were used to shoot down Syrian and Russian helicopters and aircraft.

On the night of the attack on September 11th, 2012 in what became his last public meeting, Ambassador Chris Stevens reportedly met with Turkish Consul General Ali Sait Akin to negotiate the weapons transfers out of Libya and into Syria.

Three days later, another Libyan ship docked in Turkey “carrying the largest consignment of weapons for Syria”. The shipment weighed over 400 tons and included SA-7  anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Libyan official Abdul Basit Haroun would later publicly admit that he was letting weapons leave the port of Benghazi to reach the Syrian rebels. “They know we are sending guns to Syria,” Haroun said. “Everyone knows.” The New York Times would innocuously headline an article “In turnabout, Syria rebels get Libyan weapons

Libyan ship “Al Ensitar” docking in Turkey with weapons bound for Syria

Lighter shipments of weapons were snuck directly into smaller Syrian ports, as the original DoD intelligence report said, but the much heavier, deadly weaponry was going through a secret command center near the Syrian border jointly run by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

A U.S. government source acknowledged that under provisions of the presidential finding, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.

Last week, Reuters reported that, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey had established a secret base near the Syrian border to help direct vital military and communications support to Assad’s opponents.

This “nerve center” is in Adana, a city in southern Turkey about 60 miles from the Syrian border, which is also home to Incirlik, a U.S. air base where U.S. military and intelligence agencies maintain a substantial presence.

NBC said the shoulder-fired missiles, also known as MANPADs, had been delivered to the rebels via Turkey.

If it were not already bad enough that the U.S. was smuggling weapons out of Libya, a country whose government we had just toppled with NATO’s help, who exactly were the Syrian rebels receiving these weapons? 

An internal Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) briefing from August 2012 offered a sobering analysis of what the Syrian opposition we were arming looked like.

The General Situation

A. Internally, events are taking a clear sectarian direction.

B. The Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.

C. The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia, China and Iran support the regime

Syrian rebel holding surface-to-air missile, known as a MANPAD

It wasn’t just the DIA reporting that extremist militant groups were leading the opposition to Assad. The defense consultancy IHS Jane reported at the time that more than half the rebel fighters in Syria had some hardline Islamist affiliation.

“The insurgency is now dominated by groups which have at least an Islamist viewpoint on the conflict. The idea that it is mostly secular groups leading the opposition is just not borne out.” – Charles Lister, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute

It’s hard to imagine that at the same time U.S. intelligence was reporting that literal jihadists were leading the opposition to Assad…that we decided to covertly ship weapons to them. 

But that is exactly what happened.

With the help of Turkey, the Saudis and the Qataris, the United States helped funnel weapons to a range of jihadi extremist groups to overthrow the Syrian government.

Of course the larger story in the background is the not-so-secret oil and gas pipeline war that has pit the U.S. and its Gulf allies against Russia, Iran and Syria (I have written about that extensively here). But teaming up with extremists to reach geopolitical objectives rarely works out.

As the Syrian civil war entered its second year, a resurgent Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) banded together with a range of other salafist militia groups to declare a “caliphate” in eastern Syria and parts of Iraq.

Thus, ISIS was born.

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir during 2015 Syria peace talks

The origin of ISIS as an “anti-Assad” fighting force is never really reckoned with when we talk about the conflict in Syria today. Nor the fact that the Defense Intelligence Agency predicted a “Salafist principality” could be formed between Iraq and Syria as a way to “isolate the Syrian regime” almost 2 years in advance.

In an e-mail to John Podesta, Hillary Clinton rather plainly pointed the finger at Saudi Arabia and Qatar for providing “financial and logistic support to ISIL”. But the U.S. has played perhaps equally as important a role in its rise.

Not only did ISIS ultimately acquire millions of dollars worth of weapons that the U.S. helped funnel into Syria (and that we left behind in Iraq), but ISIS’s senior most military commander himself was in fact a CIA-trained soldier from the eastern European country of Georgia.

Abu Omar al Shishani, previously known as Tarkhan Batirashvili, was extensively trained by the CIA back in 2006 as part of the Georgian special forces sent to fight in Afghanistan.

“He was a perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star,” an unnamed former comrade who is still active in the Georgian military told McClatchy DC. “We were well trained by American special forces units, and he was the star pupil.”

Former ISIS military commander Tarkhan Batirashvili, known as “Omar the Chechen”

Batirashvili disappeared for a number of years but then reappeared in Syria in 2013 commanding the jihadist Syrian rebel group Jaysh al Muhajireen. The group merged with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to form ISIS and he became its commander of military operations.His military skills were so successful in capturing huge swaths of Iraq and Syria that Michael Cecire, an analyst of extremism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute commented that “Batirashvili’s ability to demonstrate ISIS’ tactical prowess attracted fighters in droves from other factions and tipped the scales in foreign fighter flow and recruitment.”

Though Batirashvili was killed in a drone strike just 5 months ago in July, he is but a part of one of the most destructive chapters in American foreign policy history.

For all the death and destruction that ISIS is spreading now, let us not forget how it really began.

It is impossible to remember the legacy of Barack Obama without remembering that in the heart of his time in office, the United States played a central role in creating two new failed states in the Middle East – Libya and Syria.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and now deceased Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi

It’s worth mentioning that I completely omitted the story of how the United States toppled the Gaddafi regime in Libya under the false pretense that he was about to commit a genocide. (No really, there are audio tapes of how we lied to overthrow the Libyan government). Perhaps I will publish that saga if Libya becomes relevant again.

But what came after Libya fell has been far more devastating than anyone could have imagined.

I doubt many of us were paying close attention to international politics back in September 2012, when most of us were in high school or starting college, but the attack at Benghazi was incredibly significant for what was happening at the time.

Not only did it occur 2 months before Obama’s re-election bid against Mitt Romney and disperse the myth that our Libya intervention had created a stable, successful democracy . It risked publicly exposing an ongoing covert operation to illegally arm rebel groups in Syria…who ended up becoming ISIS a year later.

Perhaps this is why the CIA went to extraordinary lengths to prevent agents from speaking to the media or Congress about their operations in Benghazi, going as far as polygraphing agents multiple times a month.

Perhaps this is why there was a huge clash between the CIA and the State Department in creating the talking points for how to tell the story of what was happening at Benghazi without exposing the operation.

Perhaps this is why the known falsehood of a YouTube video-inspired protest being responsible for the Benghazi attack was trotted out by the most senior levels of the Obama administration.

President Obama, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Sure, one could remember Benghazi as the partisan witch hunt which ended up proving no evidence of wrong-doing and while creating a base of fanatical Trump supporters with “Killary”signs.

Or one could remember Benghazi as the centerpiece of some of the most dangerous and catastrophic decisions made by the United States to date.

The decision to ship weapons into the hands of extremist rebel fighters in Syria has undeniably helped create this reality:

Today, half a million Syrians lay dead as the Assad government continues to battle armed opposition groups dominated by foreign extremists.

Over 10 million Syrians are displaced or seeking refuge in another country.

Over 32 countries have been victims of ISIS-related terror attacks while ISIS now has fully functional operations in 18 different countries. Both numbers are expected to grow

Syrian refugees at the Turkish border

It’s not surprising to see how Donald Trump managed to exploit this reality to win over large sections of America.The world is a far more dangerous place now than it was 8 years ago and in no small part because of the decisions made by this administration while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.

Hillary of course did her part to keep the gun-running operation her State Department was helping coordinate a secret. When questioned by Senator Rand Paul and Senator Mike Pompeo at the Benghazi hearings, she twice denied under oath that any weapons were leaving Benghazi and going to arm Syrian rebels.

But she didn’t need the operation to be exposed in order to lose the election.

The entire Middle East is in flames as millions of people in Iraq, Libya and Syria flee in every direction. With our help, jihadist groups are more powerful today than they have ever been.

So powerful that they even declared their own nation. And have developed a sophisticated propaganda network that is radicalizing thousands of individuals around the world.

Let’s not forget, our own Middle East policy of incubating ISIS to help overthrow Assad came home to roost in this election.

Photo I took outside of Pulse Nightclub in Orlando two weeks after an ISIS-inspired attack killed 49 people

After ISIS-inspired attacks killed 14 people in San Bernardino and 49 people in Orlando many people’s priorities for the next President changed. Their views on immigration, refugees, and religion hardened.

Donald Trump’s ridiculous plan to ban Muslims from coming into America didn’t seem so crazy anymore. In fact, almost half of Americans supported it. Nationalism, xenophobia and Islamophobia became mainstreamed and rationalized.

The blowback seems predictable now, but it does not make it any less unfortunate.

The millions of innocent people abroad who have been most hurt by our years of misguided interventions in the Middle East are also the ones who have the most to lose from a Trump administration.

This is why when we look back at Benghazi it should not be about a YouTube video or whether Hillary Clinton should have done more to protect the 4 Americans who died.

The real legacy of Benghazi is how the destruction that the Obama administration is leaving behind in the Middle East allowed Donald Trump to come to power.

Whatever is in store for us in this new year, my only hope is that the next administration has learned the lesson of Benghazi. A lesson that every American administration since the end of World War II has failed to learn.

Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to get out of the business of overthrowing foreign governments. 

About The Author

Chetan Hebbale is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. focused on international economics, climate change, and sustainability.

Prior to this, he spent over 4 years at Deloitte Consulting working on technology and strategy projects at the CDC and U.S. Treasury Department.

He is a native of Atlanta, GA and attended the University of Georgia.

Foreign Policy Investigative Report Long Form

Whose Side Are We Really On In Syria?

This report is one of the more comprehensive explorations of the Syrian conflict that you will find on the Internet today. Painstakingly researched during my senior year of college in 2016, I unravel the multiple dimensions of one of the most complex geopolitical conflicts in modern history.

Section 1: Who is Fighting Who in Syria?

  • Executive Summary on the Syrian Battlefield
  • Chapter 1: Grim Reality – Introduction To The Syrian Conflict
  • Chapter 2: Dangerous Allies – Having To Work With Extremists, Again
  • Chapter 3: The Birth of ISIS – A Rouge Ally Becomes A Global Enemy
  • Chapter 4: The Kurds – Seeking Independence During a Civil War
  • Chapter 5: Divided and Unconquered – Who Controls The Different Parts of Syria

Chapter 2: Why is The World Fighting Over Syria?

  • Chapter 6: Petrodollar Warfare – How Oil and Gas Shaped Another Middle East Conflict
  • Chapter 7: Sectarian Strife – Saudi Arabia and Iran Duke It Out For Sunni/Shia Domination
  • Chapter 8: Imperial Ghosts – ISIS and the Kurds Seek To Remedy British and French Division Of The Ottoman Empire
  • Chapter 9: Crushing Hope – The Arab Spring’s Democratic Aspirations Go Unfulfilled

Chapter 3: What’s Next In Syria?

  • Chapter 10: Donald Trump vs Hillary Clinton – Early Signs On How The Two Will Handle Syria
  • Chapter 11: Closing Thoughts – How It All Ends

Article Review – October 17th, 2016: “University of Georgia Undergrad Knows More About Syria Than Trump or Clinton”

Section 1: Who Is Fighting Who In Syria

If this doesn’t make any sense to you, you’re in the right place!

Executive summary on the Syrian battlefield (as of October 2016)

  • U.S. wants to oust Syrian President Assad and eliminate ISIS. The “moderate” rebels that we would like to be leading these efforts don’t really exist. Disorganization, lack of weapons/training ,and Russia’s bombing campaign have decimated U.S.-backed “moderate” forces. They have now mostly merged with Al Qaeda-backed groups or are explicitly cooperating with them in the fight against both Assad and ISIS.
  • The U.S. and Russia can’t come to a political solution to the Syrian war, because the Assad regime and Russia keep bombing civilians in what they describe as a war against terrorism. The problem is that it is a war against terrorism because extremists groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are leading the fight against Assad.
  • To defeat ISIS, the U.S. has primarily relied on Kurdish forces to push the ground fight along with an international coalition of airstrikes. Turkey does not support our arming of the Kurds and have been helping ISIS in their attacking Kurdish forces and in fighting Assad. Turkey has now invaded Syria to drive the Kurds out of recent cities they’ve captured along the border between Turkey and Syria.

Chapter 1: Grim Reality – Introduction To The Syrian Conflict

It doesn’t occur to most people everyday, but there’s an ongoing war in Syria which has killed almost half a million people since 2011 and has created the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. This is also a war that the United States has been deeply involved in for the past 5 years.

Syria will be one of the most significant foreign policy challenges that the next US president will face, yet it has barely been discussed in the 2016 Presidential race. In fact, with about a month left before the election and already one presidential debate in, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have actually proposed a serious plan about what they would do to stop the meltdown in Syria.

The Syrian war is one of the most complex geopolitical conflicts in modern history. It has eluded any diplomatic resolution for 5 years precisely because it’s a war fraught with a multitude of actors, confusing alliances and conflicting motives for those fighting. The conflict has destabilized the entire region and has increased the frequency of terror attacks in America, Europe and around the world.

At a high level, the battlefield is largely between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups trying to overthrow the government. What began as peaceful protests against the Assad government during the “Arab Spring” in early 2011 devolved into a full-blown civil war about a year into the regime’s violent crackdown against the opposition. In the five years since, nations around the world have been funding and arming both the opposition and the regime in what has become a global proxy war for control of Syria.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

It’s from this chaos that the terrorist organization Al Qaeda has resurged to power as one of the leading rebel groups against Assad and the Islamic State has emerged as a rival international terrorist organization capable of devastating attacks around the world.

Unfortunately, this war is not ending any time soon. In fact, the war in Syria is now entering a new phase entirely. The recent US-Russia negotiated ceasefire was the fourth attempted ceasefire in the war and has already collapsed as factions continue to battle it out for who rules Syria.

Millions of besieged citizens continue to flee en-masse to Europe and neighboring states while those who stay are gripped in a horrifying violence which has already claimed an entire generation of Syrians.

What everyone can agree on at this stage is that the U.S. policy in Syria so far has been an unmitigated disaster. The Syrian war is to a large degree considered one of the greatest failures of the Obama administration, and they will be leaving the next administration with no good options on how to resolve the conflict.

The reality of the 2016 election is that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, like presidential candidates before them, don’t really have the power to do most of the things they promise on the campaign trail. But foreign policy is one of the few powers that the Executive branch has a lot of control over. So here’s a comprehensive guide that I encourage both of the candidates to read from because there are a lot of lives at stake.

5 year old boy Omran Daqneesh sits in an ambulance after an airstrike in Aleppo

The Syrian battlefield is a mess. A quick look at Slate’s Syrian Conflict guide or this CNN diagram will leave your head spinning trying to make sense of who’s fighting who. So I decided to create a binary table to make it simpler – who is fighting to keep Assad in power vs. who is fighting to topple Assad? 

Entity Pro-AssadAnti-Assad
Nation StatesRussiaUnited States
IraqSaudi Arabia
Non-State ActorsHezbollahISIS (Islamic State)
Al Qaeda
Kurdish People

When it comes to Syria, ultimately it comes down to the question of whether you’re fighting to replace the Syrian government or keep it in place. That has manifested in the most complex reality of the Syrian war – ISIS and Al Qaeda are fighting on the same side as the U.S. against Assad.

Chapter 2: Dangerous Allies – Having To Work With Extremists, Again

Rebel fighters for the Al-Nusra Front in Syrian city of Idlib

Not only are ISIS and Al Qaeda both fighting the Assad regime, but Al Qaeda-backed rebels are considered to be the strongest opposition groups against the Syrian government today. From the beginning of the war the jihadist involvement in Syria has been fundamentally anti-Assad, which has always put them on our side of the war.

For years, the U.S. has been tacitly helping (and meeting with) a variety of Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups in their fight against Assad. A lot of the intelligence, aid and weapons that the U.S., Turkey and our Gulf allies have been funneling to the opposition have in fact directly gone to arm Al Qaeda-backed groups. The most prominent is Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Al Nusra Front (although the group changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham last month). Many of the weapons that went to them, along with other Al Qaeda-linked groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, have now also fallen into the hands of ISIS.

It is pertaining to this issue that Julian Assange of WikiLeaks released Hillary Clinton’s e-mails from her tenure as Secretary of State revealing knowledge of these weapons shipments to jihadist elements in Syria to help overthrow Assad.

US cooperation with Islamic extremist groups is not a new development in American foreign policy. It’s a tradition that began with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

It is now open and public knowledge that the US, with Pakistan’s help, created and armed the “Mujahideen”, led by Osama bin Laden, to fight the Soviet Union in this conflict.  Afghanistan has since been partially controlled by the Taliban. 

In 2011, the same tactics reared their head during the Arab Spring. In Libya, the US spent $1 billion in illegal arms support for opposition groups to overthrew Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. An analysis found that most of this went to arming Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups, who are now controlling entire parts of Libya along with ISIS.

President Reagan meets with Afghan Mujahideen (later to become Al Qaeda)  in the Oval Office – 1983

In Syria the same story unfolds as far as the US aligning itself with questionable militant groups despite an ill-planned attempt to create a “moderate” fighting force.

For the last 5 years, the U.S.-led coalition has tepidly tried to build-up the “moderate“, secular Free Syrian Army as a viable opposition to Assad, but has failed miserably. The half a billion dollar U.S. train-and-equip program for the Free Syrian Army, which was supposed to prepare over 5,600 fighters out of a training camp in Jordan, produced exactly four, to five soldiers. Today, the Free Syrian Army has virtually collapsed and is so “moderate” that they’re beheading Syrian children. They also hate the U.S. so much that Free Syrian Army fighters chased away U.S. special forces that came to help.

“[The Free Syrian Army] is something of a myth, with a media presence far outstripping its actual organizational capacity” and amounted to little more than “a diverse array of local defense forces, ideological trends, and self-interested warlords. It exercised little real command and control, and had little ability to formulate or implement a coherent military strategy.”

Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies

While some U.S.-backed “moderate” rebel groups are battling Al Qaeda groups, many have defected to their ranks or are working alongside Al Qaeda fighters in Syria. In the on-going battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo it is the jihadist rebel groups like Al Nusra that have led the way against the Assad government.

Mohammad al Joulani – Leader of the Al Qaeda-backed Al Nusra Front

This is the key sticking point between Russia, Assad’s staunchest ally, and the U.S., over what is happening in Syria. The U.S. claims Russia is not interested in peace and is committing war crimes by indiscriminately bombing civilian areas. Russia claims it is fighting terrorists in Syria.

The unfortunate reality is that both are true. Russia is ruthlessly killing hundreds of Syrian civilians in their quest to eliminate the challengers to Assad. But because the opposition is overrun with extremists and there is no real “moderate” opposition representing a democratic, secular replacement for Assad, Russia is technically fighting the the war against terrorism in Syria.  Russia has gone as far as to accuse the U.S. of protecting Al Qaeda-linked rebels and backing a rebel terrorist alliance at risk of ending the ceasefire to keep the fight against Assad going.

At this stage, if the Assad regime was toppled through an overt intervention the result would be some form of a more hardline Islamist regime coming to power as opposed to Assad’s mostly secular rule – a repeat of our Libya intervention.

Russia ( and China’ssupport for Assad is actually in large part out of fear of repeating the disastrous U.S.-NATO invasion of Libya, which toppled the secular Gaddafi regime and allowed Al Qaeda and ISIS  to exploit a power vacuum there.  Russia fears that jihadist groups would now fill the power vacuum in a post-Assad Syria.

But which jihadists would come to power?

This is perhaps the most nuanced aspect of Middle East conflicts today. Al Qaeda and ISIS are actually at war with each other.

The birth of ISIS in 2013, two years into the Syrian civil war, would alter the dynamics of the Syrian battlefield substantially.

Chapter 3: The Birth of ISIS – A Rouge Ally Becomes A Global Enemy

Islamic State executes Egyptian prisoners

In late 2013, an internal power struggle within Al Qaeda over who controlled the Al Nusra Front in Syria would lead to ISIS forming and splintering off from Al Qaeda entirely. ISIS has since eclipsed Al Qaeda as the world’s preeminent terror organization and has taken the public’s focus off of the war against Assad entirely through its gruesome beheadings and catastrophic terror attacks around the world.

The history of ISIS did not begin in 2013, but had its roots in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, Al Qaeda opened a branch there creatively named Al Qaeda in Iraq or AQI. AQI played a major role in the sectarian violence that consumed Iraq after Saddam fell, but the group was largely defeated by the time the U.S. left Iraq in 2011.

Right as the U.S. was leaving Iraq, the civil war next door in Syria was beginning. A re-grouping AQI would dispatch some of its operatives into Syria to set up a new jihadist organization to help topple Assad – the Al Nusra Front. Within a year Al Nusra grew into one of the most powerful opposition groups in Syria, in no small part due to the arms and funding they were receiving by outside nations who wanted to oust Assad.

The success of Al Nusra in Syria would lead to tensions between AQI leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi in Iraq and Al Qaeda’s central leadership in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Baghdadi wanted Al Nusra in Syria to merge with AQI in Iraq and he tried to combine the two. Al Qaeda’s senior leader Ayman al-Zawahiri balked at the combination and ordered AQI to operate in Iraq separately from Al Nusra in Syria. Al Nusra’s leader Muhammad al Joulani sided with Al Qaeda’s leadership but AQI leader Baghdadi refused. Baghdadi then split with Al Qaeda and renamed AQI into ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. 

Al Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri (left) disavows ISIS leader al-Baghdadi (right) in February 2014

This was a very confusing time in the jihadi world, many Syrian jihadists left Al Nusra for ISIS and the two began competing for soldiers. ISIS then began to attract a growing number of foreign fighters and recruited senior military leaders who were part of Saddam Hussein’s army that was dissolved after the American invasion. ISIS would then sweep through Iraq and Syria capturing huge swaths of territory and with it massive amounts of American-made weapons and tanks that the U.S. had sold to the Iraqi army previously.

What happened next is something the U.S. intelligence community had predicted two years earlier, yet still continued to transfer heavy arms into Syria during this time. A declassified 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report would confirm everyone’s worse suspicions about the birth of ISIS.

C. If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran). D. The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows:
—1 This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters. ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.

Intelligence report from the Defense Intelligence Agency from August 2012

On June 29th, 2014, ISIS would revive a political entity the Muslim world had not seen in almost a 100 years – the caliphate. ISIS declared its captured territory between Iraq and Syria as the “Islamic State”, a de facto self-ruled country under sharia law, and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new caliph and “leader for Muslims everywhere.”

Al Qaeda’s leadership, stunned by the unprecedented move,  would formally disavow the group and the two have since been actively fighting each other to be the global leader of Islamic jihad.

That’s right – despite both Al Qaeda and ISIS preaching a virtually identical extremist message and a shared desire to remove Assad to establish Syria as an Islamic nation governed by sharia law, their methods and longer-term vision differ enough that the two are willing to go to war with each other. 

ISIS produced a fierce schism in the jihadi movement

The ISIS/Al Qaeda divorce has complicated things for the U.S. and the other Syrian rebels on the ground who are fighting Assad. Many of America’s Gulf allies who want to see Assad gone believed ISIS was their best bet to make it happen, and have been actively funding and arming the Islamic State. But after a series of horrifying beheadings, devastating terror attacks around the world and violent persecution of other Muslims, ISIS has made enemies of everyone.

ISIS is so horrifyingly brutal and vicious to anyone that doesn’t submit to their rule that the Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups and whatever’s left of the “moderate” rebels are now fighting a two-front war against both ISIS and the Assad government.

The U.S. and its allies are now faced with the dilemma of eliminating ISIS, which is fighting Assad, or to let ISIS be and go after Assad. The U.S. strategy so far has been some mix of both.  The U.S. has been striking ISIS, but primarily in Iraq not in Syria. In the last two years the U.S. has conducted 11,000 airstrikes against ISIS targets and 9,000 of those have been in Iraq. U.S.-backed forces are preparing in the next weeks to reclaim the city of Mosul in Iraq , but have so far declined to strike ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa, Syria.  The reluctance of the U.S. to target ISIS in Syria was made painfully clear two weeks ago when an “anti-ISIS” airstrike in Syria struck Assad’s military forces instead, allowing ISIS to then gain territory against the regime and triggered the collapse of the latest ceasefire.

The U.S. certainly wants to see ISIS and the other jihadists in Syria and Iraq defeated, but as long as it remains politically and militarily committed to Assad leaving these goals will inevitably come in conflict. Because there is no viable moderate opposition to Assad, US foreign policy in Syria is now essentially a decision about which jihadist group it would rather have control the country – ISIS or Al Qaeda? Former CIA director David Petraeus has actually recommended that the U.S. formally recruit Al Qaeda fighters to fight this two-front war in Syria.


The absolute chaos amongst the “anti-Assad” factions has all worked to keep the Syrian president in power. I made the chart above to help you visualize it. The significant sub-conflict with the “Kurdish YPG/SDF” forces will be explained in a little. 

The presence of ISIS has been a blessing for the Assad regime because it further divides his enemies who were already fighting with each other. Assad is happy to let the other Syrian rebels fend off ISIS, and to this end Assad has actually been covertly helping ISIS by buying their stolen oil. Assad’s long-term strategy is the elimination of the Syrian rebels, which would force the nations that back those rebels into allying themselves with Assad to finish off ISIS. Ultimately for Assad to look at the world and say, “it’s either me or ISIS, you choose.” 

This is the strategy Russia carried out when it formally entered the Syrian war last year and ultimately swung the tide of the war in Assad’s favor. Russian airstrikes have largely focused on eliminating U.S-backed rebels that’re fighting Assad rather than targeting ISIS.

The situation in Syria is such that Assad and Russia don’t want to eliminate ISIS because they’re fighting Syrian rebel groups, and the U.S. and its allies have somewhat let ISIS exist in Syria as a vehicle to battle Assad. 

Let’s take a look at the landscape of the Syrian rebels that Assad and Russia are trying to get rid of right now.

Rebels holding Ahrar al-Sham flag (left), FSA flag (center) and Al Nusra flag (right)
Moderate RebelsAl Qaeda-backed RebelsKurdish Rebels
Free Syrian Army Al-Nusra (now JFS)People’s Protection Units (YPG)
A&D FrontAhrar al-ShamSyrian Democratic Forces (SDF)
Syrian Turkmen BrigadeJaysh al-Islam

There are reportedly over over 1,000 armed opposition groups against Assad so this is really capturing a small part of how complicated the battlefield is. These divisions are also not as clean as the table makes them given the overlapping alliances and rivalries that exist between all these groups for funding, weapons and territory.

We know the “moderate” opposition is mostly defunct and Al Qaeda-backed groups are dominating the fight in Syria….what’s the Kurdish opposition?

Chapter 4: The Kurds – Seeking Independence During a Civil War

The Kurdish people are a marginalized and oppressed ethnic group spread across the Middle East with their own language, culture and national identity. They are in fact the world’s largest ethnicity without their own state – a painful reality as a result of a historic betrayal by the British and French.

In northern Syria there are slightly over a million ethnic Kurds who see the civil war against Assad as a chance to form their own self-ruled country, much like the Kurds in Iraq have done since the 1991 Gulf War. Today the Kurds have essentially seceded from Syria and instituted their own government and military in their territory. Though I have placed the Kurds on the “anti-Assad” side because they have been fighting with the regime, they are undeniably fearful that whoever would come after him could be even worse for the Kurdish struggle for independence.

Geographic dispersion of the Kurdish people

Because of the Kurd’s proximity to Iraq, they are incredibly important player in the war against ISIS. The US has been heavily supporting and arming the Kurdish military called the YPG and have created a US-Kurdish joint force called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to battle ISIS in key cities.

However, the Kurdish people have a very complex relationship with Turkey, a U.S. and NATO ally. Like I said the Kurds are spread across the Middle East and a majority of them actually live in Turkey, making up close to 25% of Turkey’s population.

Turkish President Erdogan (left) sees Kurdish YPG fighters (right) as a threat to Turkey

Turkey considers the Kurds as terrorists. The outlawed Kurdish political party in Turkey, the PKK, has been fighting a decades long insurgency against the Turkish government for political freedom and representation. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan fears that the U.S. empowering the Kurds in Syria could heighten the power of the PKK and their calls for Kurdish secession in Turkey – something Erdogan fears more than ISIS.

As a result, Turkey has been actively subverting the U.S.-Kurdish campaign against ISIS and has allowed ISIS to cross through the Turkish border to fight the Kurds. All of this culminated in Turkey invading Syria this month to drive out Kurdish YPG fighters from Turkey’s southern border

The Turkish government has made it clear that given a choice between defeating Islamic State and forestalling any possibility of an independent Kurdish state along its southern border, it will opt to go to war against the Kurdish YPG and to tolerate the continued existence of the Islamic State.

 Joseph V. Micallef, military historian and visiting professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver

Though Turkey is anti-Kurd they are also extremely anti-Assad. President Erdogan wants Assad gone and has been one of the principle financiers to Syrian rebel groups. In fact, almost all U.S. and Gulf support to the Syrian rebels have gone through a Turkish base. Turkey has not been shy about working with extremist rebel groups to help topple Assad, even if it also meant working with ISIS at times. Turkey has now invaded Syria in the circled area in the map below to drive the Kurds out of recent cities they’ve captured.

Chapter 5: Divided and Unconquered – Who Controls The Different Parts of Syria

Turkey has now entered into Syria in the circled area to drive out Kurdish forces

This map is a few months old but the battlefield has largely remained the same other than the two cities in northern Syria where I put in a checkered circle.

As you can see, ISIS has taken over most of the eastern portion of Syria and the Kurds control much of the north. The Assad regime controls most of western Syria (where a majority of Syrians live) and is primarily battling the rebels in the south around the capitol of Damascus, and in the north-west in the nation’s largest city and economic hubAleppo.

The battle for the city of Aleppo has gotten especially more attention over the last few months as harrowing photos and videos have emerged of the carnage. The regime and the eclectic mix of Syrian rebels groups are viciously battling over control for the city which could have huge ramifications for any potential political settlement to the civil war.


The current focus of the Syrian civil war is in the north-west area, both in Aleppo around closer to the Turkish border, where Turkey just invaded two months ago.

Last month, U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG and SDF forces captured the northern city of Manbij from ISIS control. Turkey then freaked out that the Syrian Kurds were becoming too powerful and would form a “Kurdish corridor” on their southern border. The Turks proceeded to invade Syria a few weeks later – overtaking the ISIS-controlled city of Jarablus and then driving the U.S.-armed Kurds out of Manbij, the city the Kurds had just taken from ISIS.

It is believed that Turkey is seeking to create a “safe zone” in northern Syria from where it can draw deeper attacks into the country against against the Assad regime in Aleppo as well as against ISIS and the Kurds.

Yellow: Kurds, Green: Assad Regime, Red: Syrian Rebels, Black: ISIS

Erdogan is signaling that he favors establishing a 5,000 kilometer “safe zone” in Syria which could be well received by the U.S. and be a possible area of cooperation.

But how did we even get here? We’re dealing with all this now because the world’s great powers staged a global proxy war over the Assad government, what are we even fighting over in the first place? 

Section 2: Why Is The World Fighting Over Syria?

The Syrian conflict has pulled in nearly a dozen countries around the world with Russia and Iran (left) and Turkey and Saudi Arabia (right) being a few of the most heavily involved

There are a multitude of reasons why so many different nations and non-state groups are involved in the Syrian war but for most casual observers the war in Syria is a war about human rights and democracy.

Indeed, Assad is a dictator who brutally cracked down on his own people when they started protesting against his repressive government. After Syria descended into civil war, Assad has not only been indiscriminately bombing civilian areas to drive out rebel groups, he is doing so using barrel bombsnapalm-like thermite bombs and chemical weapons including chlorine and sarin gas.

It’s easy to imagine that the U.S. support for the opposition in Syria is out of desire to promote democratic reform and to stop a ruthless dictator. But why are similarly repressive governments like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on our side? Are they really trying to oust Assad to uphold any standard of democracy or respect for human rights?

There are four parallel wars happening within Syria right now of which each actor involved has a different stake in.

  • Chapter 6: Petrodollar Warfare – How Oil and Gas Shaped Another Middle East Conflict
  • Chapter 7: Sectarian Strife – Saudi Arabia and Iran Fight For Sunni/Shia Domination
  • Chapter 8: Imperial Ghosts – ISIS and the Kurds Seek To Remedy British and French Division Of The Ottoman Empire
  • Chapter 9: Crushing Hope – The Arab Spring’s Democratic Aspirations Go Unfulfilled

Chapter 6: Petrodollar Warfare – How Oil and Gas Shaped Another Middle East Conflict 


Shocking, a war in the Middle East that’s actually been about oil and gas the whole time.

Right now there are two proposed gas pipelines coming out of the Persian Gulf, both of which must cross through Syria to get to Europe – the Iran-Iraq-Syria Pipeline and the Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey Pipeline. The U.S. is supporting its Gulf allies in pushing for their pipeline and Russia is supporting its allies Iran and Syria for their pipeline – this division is not so coincidentally the two sides of the war in Syria today.

The pipeline war began in 2009 when Qatar proposed to Assad the construction of a joint liquid-natural-gas (LNG) pipeline from the South Pars / North Dome gas field in the Persian Gulf all the way to Europe. Assad said no. Instead, he opted to build an alternate pipeline with his allies Iraq and Iran. On July 25th, 2011, only five months into the Syrian uprising, Bashar al Assad quietly signed a $10 billion gas-pipeline deal with Iran and Iraq to begin construction on their pipeline.

As civil war has consumed Syria since, it should come as no surprise that Iran has been one of the principle backers of the Assad regime and the spurned countries, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been the principle financiers of the Syrian opposition to overthrow Assad. These three nations have poured in far more millions than the U.S. into funding and arming the Syrian rebels to oust Assad and place in a new regime that will approve their pipeline.

Qatari Emir Al Thani (left), Turkish President Erdogan (center), Saudi King Salman (right)

The South Pars / North Dome is the world’s largest gas field shared between Iran and Qatar in the Persian Gulf. The field holds an estimated 1,800 trillion cubic feet of natural gas allowing for an estimated pumping capacity of 100-120 million cubic feet of gas per day. For Turkey, the pipeline is a signature part of its long standing goal to break its dependence on Russian oil and become an energy transit hub at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe.

“If completed, the project would have had major geopolitical implications. Ankara would have profited from rich transit fees. The project would have also given the Sunni kingdoms of the Persian Gulf decisive domination of world natural gas markets and strengthen Qatar, America’s closest ally in the Arab world” –


Vladimir Putin sees the Qatar-Saudi-Turkey pipeline as an existential threat to Russia and this is partly why Russia has intervened the most of any nation both diplomatically and militarily to keep Assad in power.

Russia currently enjoys its status as one of the world’s largest oil & natural gas suppliers because it singlehandedly controls the European energy market. A new pipeline to supply gas to Europe would change the energy game entirely. In Putin’s view, the Qatar pipeline is a NATO plot to change the status quo, deprive Russia of its only foothold in the Middle East, strangle the Russian economy and end Russian leverage in the European energy market.

When Assad announced in 2009 that he would refuse to sign the pipeline deal with Qatar, he even said he did so “to protect the interests of our Russian ally.”

Vladimir Putin, Bashar Assad
Bashar al Assad goes to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin in 2015

Russia and Syria have been close allies for decades, not just as of late. They share a deep economic and military relationship that’s cemented by Russia’s only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union hosted in the Syrian city of Tartus. If the pipeline by Putin’s allies in Syria and Iran is built, Russia would exert some measure of control over output and pricing decisions and thus maintain its grip over Europe’s energy needs.

Syria is the only country in the Middle East which follows our advice, this is the country where we can exercise certain tangible influence…the loss of Syria will mean we will have no influence in this region at all.

Ruslan Pukhov, Defense Analyst at Russian think-tank CAST

Europe has been desperate to break its reliance on Russian gas and as a result the U.S. and Russia have been in a not-so-secret energy war in Eastern Europe to control the market. Syria sits at the middle of this great power energy war which is why the U.S. has a vested interest in the outcome.


The U.S. plays a very interesting role in the global energy market because of its relationship with OPEC, the cartel of 12 oil-producing nations around the world (which excludes Russia). Unknown to most, OPEC sells oil and gas on the international market strictly in U.S. dollars.

deal was struck in 1974 between the U.S. and OPEC to denominate all its oil sales in U.S. dollars in exchange for the U.S. providing permanent military security for the Saudi Kingdom. This came to be known as the “petrodollar” system, named for the use of dollars to purchase petroleum on the global oil market. Other countries have no choice but to buy and hold large reserves of U.S. dollars in their central banks because they cannot purchase oil from OPEC without dollars. 

Given the importance of oil and gas in the global economy (and America’s lack of an export economy), the world’s dependency on petrodollars to buy oil fundamentally underwrites the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.

Even more so, any surpluses generated by the OPEC nations selling oil are invested back into the United States by buying US Treasury bonds or as deposits in U.S. banks. This was the second term of the agreement with OPEC and came to be known as “petrodollar recycling“.

The direct foreign investment of surplus oil profits into the U.S. banking system along with the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency is what allows the U.S government to perpetually finance the nation’s massive trade deficit by issuing dollar denominated assets at very low interest rates. It has also allowed the US to finance the world’s largest military and most importantly, it has allowed successive American administrations to spend far more, year-in year-out, than is raised in tax and export revenue.

In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia struck a deal with the U.S. to exclusively price oil on the international markets in U.S. dollars

If the U.S.-backed Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey pipeline is built, Europe will have to purchase this new gas supply in U.S. dollars and the OPEC petrodollar system will remain intact.  If the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline backed by Russia is successfully built, then billions of barrels of gas will be sold to Europe in alternate currencies to the U.S. dollar.

If nations begin decoupling away from the U.S. dollar to purchase oil and gas it would subsequently erode the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency, collapse the petrodollar and end the last four decades of “dollar hegemony” that the U.S. has enjoyed. This is an outcome Russia would like to see and one that the U.S. has gone to great lengths over the years to avoid.

Viewed through a geopolitical and economic lens, the conflict in Syria is not a civil war, but the result of larger international players positioning themselves on the geopolitical chessboard in preparation for the opening of the pipeline.

Major Rob Taylor, US Army Command

The relationship between the U.S. dollar, oil and our propensity to stage military interventions in the Middle East is a well observed trend, but it is virtually never brought to light in the news. Most Americans believe we fight wars in the Middle East for oil and they’re not wrong..

Saddam Hussein (ousted 2003), Muammar Gaddafi (ousted 2011), Bashar al Assad (?)

The 2003 invasion of Iraq under the false pretense of removing Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (a now well-established knowingly false narrative) raised substantial questions about external motivations for such an intervention.

The war could be understood through the lens of a currency war or oil grab after Saddam had stopped selling Iraqi oil in dollars in 2000 in retaliation for U.S. sanctions. At the time Iraq had the largest untapped oil reserves in the world. Iraqi oil sales were switched back to dollars after Saddam Hussein was removed from power.

Those who defended the Iraq invasion never mentioned in public that the invasion was necessary to defend the dollar. To do so would have created a public backlash as well as public scrutiny of why the dollar was so vulnerable. To explain this vulnerability to the public, the explanation would have eventually revealed that we are a nation that cannot pay its debts. The political cost of a crashing economy, lack of funds for our ever-expanding military, and an alarmed public would have been an unbearable political burden for those in power

Bart Gruzalski, professor emeritus of philosophy from Northeastern University

The more recent 2011 U.S.-NATO led invasion of Libya ousted Muammar Gaddafi under the false pretense of an imminent genocide after Gaddafi planned to stop selling oil in dollars in favor of a gold-backed dinar currency Libyan oil was then split up amongst the countries supporting the NATO mission to remove Gaddafi.

Invariably the countries we have chosen to invade have all posed an acute threat to the petrodollar monetary system, regardless of what justification for intervention is sold to the public. Now that there is again a challenge to the petrodollar system, but in Syria, the world’s great powers have waged another bloody oil war in the name of democracy and human rights.

Chapter 7: Sectarian Strife – Saudi Arabia and Iran Fight For Sunni/Shia Domination 

Saudi King Salman (Sunni) on the left and Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini (Shia) on the right lead prayer

The war to control Syria is not just driven by competing gas pipelines, but strikes a deeper chord in a critically important divide in the Middle East.

After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. a dispute over who should succeed him, his father-in-law Abu Bakr or cousin Ali,  would lead to a split in Islam between the Sunni and the Shia. This ancient schism has come to define much of the regional conflict in the Middle East today and plays a prominent role in the Syrian war.

In the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia considers itself the leader of Sunni Islam while Iran is the stronghold for Shia Islam. Saudi Arabia and Iran have an on-going rivalry for regional power in the Middle East that is rooted in the religious antagonism of the Sunni/Shia divide. The two have such a heated rivalry that in January of this year Saudi Arabia and Iran cut off all diplomatic ties with each other after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric.  (A more deeper breakdown of how the Shia and Sunni differ theologically is here)

The distribution of Sunnis and Shias is not as even as you would imagine. Of the world’s more than 1.5 billion Muslims almost 85%-90% are Sunnis while only about 10-15% are Shia. Despite being a clear minority amongst Muslims globally, Shias have a strong presence in the Middle East. The Shiites are concentrated in Iran, southern Iraq and southern Lebanon but there are significant Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

There are three nations in the Middle East with Shia-controlled governments today: Iran, Iraq and Syria. The rest are ruled by Sunnis.


The Sunni and Shia have actually gotten along for most of history. It’s a common misperception that the sectarian strife we see across the region today has been going on for thousands of years.  There were two events that occurred less than 40 years ago that would shake the foundations of the Muslim world and global politics at large – the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing Grand Mosque seizure in Mecca.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the pro-Western Shah of Iran and created an Islamic republic where Shia religious clerics were put in charge of the country. It was the first time a country in the modern Middle East was to be ruled under a theocratic constitution where a religious figure led the country – the Ayatollah.

This sent shockwaves through the Sunni-dominated Muslim world and especially amongst the Sunni religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia. They began to feel that Sunni Islam was under threat from the growing power of Shiites in Iran and staged a siege of Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, the Grand Mosque. They accused the ruling House of Saud monarchy as being heretics for its openness with the West and called for them to step down to create an Islamic republic in Saudi Arabia to counter Iran. To end the siege and prevent another religious uprising, the Saudi monarchy would give the religious conservatives, the ulama, significantly more power over the country – resulting in the strict sharia law enforced against women, minorities etc in Saudi Arabia today.

It was in 1979, less than 40 years ago, when religious conservatism would hijack both Iran and Saudi Arabia leading the thousands of years old Sunni/Shia split to see a re-awakening and giving rise to modern day anti-Western extremism.

Iranian protestors holding up a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini – Tehran, 1979

Over the last generation, the Saudi-Iran rivalry has become part of a larger “cold war” between the two for competing political and geostrategic interests in the region. In order to spread their influence both Iran and Saudi Arabia actively promote Shia and Sunni extremist groups in the Middle East as the two compete for Islamic authority and legitimacy across the region.

Iran played a central role in creating the Shiite-extremist group Hezbollah in 1982 which was/is primarily anti-Israeli but has also fueled sectarian violence with Sunnis in LebanonSaudi Arabia’s hardline Sunni Wahhabi theology served as the religious foundation for birth of Al Qaeda in 1998 and has played  a central role in ISIS’s flavor Islamic extremism which even considers Shiites as illegitimate Muslims.

Because Saudi Arabia and Iran have turned into theocracies in the last 30 years where religious authorities now wield an enormous amount of power in the government, whenever regional conflict breaks out it is incredibly important which governments are controlled by Sunnis and which are controlled by Shias.

Because of America’s animosity with Iran (starting with the Iran hostage crisis, really) along with its alliance with Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf kingdoms,American foreign policy supports Sunni governments and Russian foreign policy supports Shia governments.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini (left), Assad (center), Hezbollah commander Hassan Nasrallah (right) at pro-Assad rally

Assad and the ruling Syrian government are Alawites, a sub-sect of Shia Islam.Thus, Russia and the Shia powers in the region like Iran, Iraq and the Shia militant group Hezbollah have been militarily backing Assad. Conversely,  the U.S. and all the Sunni powers, like the Gulf kingdoms and Sunni-led Turkey, are leading the opposition and have propped up Sunni militant rebel groups to oust the Assad Shia regime.

The underlying war for competing gas pipelines in Syria is a manifestation of how the Sunni/Shia conflict is intertwined into the broader geopolitical interests of the region. The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline would make the Shiite powers in the region, not the Sunni kingdoms, the principal suppliers to the European energy market and dramatically increase Tehran’s influence in the Middle East and around the world. This is an unacceptable outcome for the Sunni powers who see their religious authority and legitimacy threatened by a Shiite expansion of power.

But the Sunni/Shia balance is not just a matter of religious or political power, it has become an issue of survival for the citizens. Sunni governments like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain marginalize and persecute Shia groups at home while Shia Iran does the same with Sunnis. Bahrain’s treatment of Shias is actually being considered a modern day apartheid. This is why regime change has such huge consequences in the Middle East.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime, a Shia government came to power under the thumb of Iran which began jailing and killing Sunni leaders and stripping their political power. This in effect brought public support for a Sunni-extremist group like ISIS to take over much of Iraq to battle the new Shia government (although ISIS is now killing Sunnis too so they really have no friends). The religious high-stakes game of survival is playing out now in Syria as well.

Religious demographics of Syria show that the country is primarily Sunni but ruled by the minority Alawite sect

This map above shows the religious demographics of Syria which explains why it has been so easy for Syria to descend into a sectarian religious war. Everything in blue is Sunni while everything in green is Alawite/Shia. As noted earlier, the Assad family is Alawite. The Alawites ethnicity in general controls almost all the political and military power in Syria but only about 11% of the Syrian population are Alawites, while close to 75% of Syrians are Sunni.

This imbalance in political representation is due to the French colonial rule of Syria which empowered the Alawite minority – a trend that continued and expanded when the Assad family came in power. In 1970 Syrian military general Hafez al-Assad led a military coup to overthrow the sitting government and the Assad family has ruled Syria for the 46 years since.

An Alawi ruling Syria is like an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.

Daniel Pipes, Middle East Historian
The Assad Family – Hafez sitting down and Bashar is the tallest son

The Assad regime actually had the support of most people in Syria, something that held true even a year into the civil war. This is why the influx of Sunni extremists groups into Syria escalated the war so significantly. The Alawite reign was not something that had sat well with the Sunni fundamentalists in Syria who saw their power as marginalized in the current state.

Because both President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him gave special priority, power, and benefit to Syria’s small Alawite minority while excluding the Sunni majority from resources and power, the nature of the country’s problems—and thus now the war—is infused with religion. It is true that oppositionists went to the street out of political, not theological, differences, but the fact that the political imbalance was drawn along religious lines put these religious identities at the heart of the fight.

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service

Alawites, or Alawis, consider themselves to be sub-sect within Shia Islam, but that idea itself is subject to intense debate amongst Islamic scholars. Some have said this would be like referring to Christianity as “an offshoot of Judaism.” Alawites hold some majorly unconventional beliefs in both the Sunni and Shia world like the incorporation of the “trinity” from Christianity, celebration of Christmas, consecration of wine, having Christian names etc.

As a result, when Syria descended into civil war Sunni Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia began to issue “fatwas”, or religious rulings, which declared Alawites to be heretics and non-Muslims and called for a “holy war” in Syria to topple the Assad regime and institute Sunni rule. This is why the civil war is now a matter of survival for the Alawite minority – if Assad fell and a radical Sunni regime came to power, they would undeniably be persecuted and killed.

Iran, Assad’s closest ally in the region, is also not a super fan of Alawi’s ruling Syria actually. The first Iranian Ayatollah in 1979 never actually met with the Assads because he did not consider them Muslims. Eventually Iranian clerics incorporated Alawites as part of the Twelver Shia branch, but everyone knows its a religious stretch. This is why the Iran-Syria relationship today isn’t over any real religious solidarity, but geopolitical interests they share in the region.

It is the underlying discrepancy in political power between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria along with the larger sectarian Saudi Arabia/Iran rivalry for regional power which is fueling what has become a religious war in Syria.

Chapter 8: Imperial Ghosts – ISIS and the Kurds Seek To Remedy British and French Division Of The Ottoman Empire 

This is the war being waged by the Kurds and the Islamic State. The two are not particularly interested in a pipeline nor have any real stake in the Saudi Arabia/Iran rivalry, rather the two are fighting to fundamentally re-draw what the borders of Syria and its neighbors looks like.

The Islamic State is a counter-state movement that explicitly aims to destroy nation-state boundaries to expand, and thus legitimize, its self-proclaimed caliphate across the Middle East. It’s current self-ruled nation sits between Iraq and Syria but it has broader ambitions to control all the Middle East and parts of Africa, Europe and Asia.

The Kurds want to establish an autonomous Kurdish nation in the Middle East but their population is spread out between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They want the governments in the region to cede parts of their land to form this new state – so far Iraq has, but none of the other three have.  The Syrian Kurds have seceded from Assad’s rule and are fighting to rule autonomously.

Though the Kurds and ISIS are currently fighting with each other in Iraq and Syria as they compete for their respective goals, they are both challenging the same fundamental crisis in the Middle East – the Skyes-Picot agreement of 1916.

British Mark Skyes (right) and French Francois Georges-Picot (left)

The Skyes-Picot agreement was an agreement reached between Britain and France to partition the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Ottoman Empire made the unfortunate decision of siding with the losing Central Powers Germany and Austria-Hungary, and after it fell the disastrous borders of the modern Middle East were created.

British diplomat Mark Sykes and French counterpart, François Georges-Picot would divide the Middle East into “spheres of influence” where the British came to rule the area that would become Iraq and France came to control Syria. As the map below shows, the partitioning had no intention of trying to empower self-rule amongst the region’s various ethnicities. These new nation-states were crafted to concentrate the location of oil fields within British and French control.

As a result, different and often unfriendly groups were shoved together and given unequal political power in just-made-up nations. This inevitably lead to one group taking power and oppressing the others causing the perpetual rebellions, coups, and sectarian violence that has come to plague the Middle East today. It is truly sad for region that is literally where human civilization emerged from.

Nowhere is the destruction of the Skyes-Picot partitioning more apparent than in Iraq where the combination of Arab Sunnis, Shia’s and ethnic Kurds has wreaked havoc on all three in recent Iraqi history. Sunni Saddam Hussein infamously used chemical weapons to massacre close to 50,000 Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war of the 80’s (we helped him). The Shiite Maliki government then came to power after Saddam and persecuted Iraqi Sunnis, using Shia militias to jail and kill Sunni political opponents. Now “Sunni” ISIS has run-over a lot of Iraq and is unleashing the medieval times on everyone in their path, with a special fury on Shiites and Kurds.

In Syria, the minority Alawi/Shia government led by Bashar’s father Hafez al Assad brutally massacred Sunnis during an Islamist uprising in the 1980s and the 2011 civil war has set off more sectarian violence against Sunnis and Kurds as the Alawites try and maintain their control over the country.

The Islamic State has actually singled out the Skyes-Picot agreement as the root of many of these modern day antagonisms. At its core ISIS is inciting a religious insurrection to overthrow all the post-World War I Western-made borders and re-instate the Caliphate-style ruling across the Muslim world. Except their caliphate is terrifying and oppressive, unlike many of the earlier Islamic caliphates.

“This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes–Picot conspiracy”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State

Right now ISIS is battling with the Kurds as they both struggle to re-define the colonial borders that have already caused so much violence in the region.

However, there has been no greater victim of the Skyes-Picot borders than the Kurdish people. Having been separated into 4 different nations with no real political representation and facing relentless suppression and persecution in all four, the Kurds are desperate to re-make the Middle East. The turmoil in Syria and Iraq has empowered Kurdish separatists movements and these movements are here to stay. While it remains to be seen if the Syrian Kurds can acquire a form of autonomy that the Iraqi Kurds have, things remain bleak for the Turkish and Iranian Kurds.  Turkey has now become the central broker in the future of Skyes-Picot agreement.

Turkey, where a majority of all ethnic Kurds live, is especially fearful of the heightened power of the Syrian Kurds and has now invaded Syria to prevent a unified Kurdish border state forming between Turkey and Syria. They fear that a Kurdish enclave at their southern border will empower the Kurds in Turkey to demand autonomy of their own and this is why Turkey has been low-key helping ISIS fight the Kurds to prevent this as already shared in Chapter 4 about the Kurds.

The Skyes-Picot agreement has hung heavily over the years of U.N. peace initiatives for Syria as diplomats recognize the difficulty of maintaining Syria, Iraq and Turkey’s territorial integrity while trying to grant autonomy to large, now armed, ethnic factions.

The Skyes-Picot agreement…looms over everything Mr. Kerry and his fellow foreign ministers are doing here….In October, the ministers, who formed the so-called International Syria Support Group, agreed that “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character are fundamental.” Yet some of the key players in the slow-motion effort to get a transitional Syrian government in place say, when granted anonymity, that they think unity and territorial integrity are simply not possible”

NY Times

Many have said ISIS’s declaration of their caliphate in effect has ended the Skyes-Picot borders of the Middle East, but it remains to be seen if/how the borders of the Middle East may change by the end of the Syrian war as many groups no longer recognize the existing borders.

Chapter 9: Crushing Hope – The Arab Spring’s Democratic Aspirations Go Unfulfilled

It feels wrong to place this as the last war, but unfortunately the conflict in Syria stopped being about democratic reform long ago. Nonetheless, it’s critically important to understand the transformation of Syria’s democratic protests into a sectarian conflict and how it will affect what comes next in Syria.

The Syrian war had its roots in the “Arab Spring” – a revolutionary wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa between 2011-2012. These uprisings were born out of discontent with high unemployment, restrictions on free speech, corruption in the government, poverty, increasing food prices etc.

The uprisings began in Tunisia and once the Tunisian government fell, the revolutionary ferver spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The governments in Egypt and Libya would fall in 2011 but there is still lingering turmoil five years later in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.

The Assad government did not take well to the uprisings in Syria and harshly cracked down on the protestors. Assad’s forces began imprisoning hundreds of protestors, outright killing many and even firing on their funeral processions. Three months into the protests in April 2011 72 protestors were shot and killed by Assad’s forces, shocking the world. This marked a turning point in the uprising – what started out as demonstrations for democratic reform in Syria now changed to demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.

If you’re wondering why the Syrian government would start killing its own people because of democratic protests, an important part of understanding the Syrian war is that Bashar al Assad’s violent response to the uprising was not just a random crackdown but a continuation of the Assad’s regime’s policy toward civil uprising that began with his father, Hafez al Assad.

Bashar al Assad and his father Hafez al Assad have ruled Syria since 1970

In 1976, Hafez al-Assad had Syrian forces intervene in Lebanon’s civil war on behalf of Lebanese Christian groups who were fighting Muslim groups. The Muslim Brotherhood and Syria’s Sunni majority saw this as heresy and launched a six year civil uprising against the Assad government. 

Hafez al-Assad quashed the uprisings in a particularly brutal fashion. In 1982, the Syrian government nearly leveled the city of Hama, where the opposition was strongest, slaughtering thousands of civilians in what is now called the Hama Massacre.  The regime learned from this experience that mass violence was a successful response to popular unrest — a lesson that was applied particularly brutally in 2011. 

“The lesson of Hama must have been at the front of the mind of every member of the Assad regime. Failure to act decisively, Hama had shown, inevitably led to insurrection. Compromise could come only after order was assured. So Bashar followed the lead of his father. He ordered a crackdown.”

William Polk, Professor of History at University of Chicago, and former advisor to JFK

The brutal crackdowns failed to intimidate or quell the popular unrest. Assad began offering political concessions to the opposition like promising a constitutional referendum, allowing a multi-party system, along with greater press freedom. He also cut taxes and raised state salaries by 1,500 Syrian pounds ($32.60) a month. However, these promises were largely dismissed by the opposition and international community as too little too late following violent crackdowns and were simply vague proposals with no concrete action.

Assad had maintained from the beginning that the Syrian uprising was one instigated by “foreign saboteurs” seeking to undermine the country’s security and stability. Indeed a 2009 WikiLeaks cable would reveal that the U.S. had been covertly funding opposition groups to Assad’s government since 2006. But what happened next would transform a mostly peaceful, secular democratic uprising into the sectarian conflict dominated by jihadi extremists today.

As Assad’s concessions failed to placate the popular unrest in the country, Assad began releasing hundreds of Syrian prisoners from jail. These were not protestors wrongfully jailed from the demonstrations, but known Islamic jihadists that were being held in the infamous Sedanya Prison (think Syria’s Guantanamo).

Ariel view of Sedanya Prison where jihadi terrorists where released from by the Syrian government

Two presidential amnesties were issued in 2011 where approximately 260 prisoners from Sedanya prison were released – all convicted or accused al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists. Their release would activate a terrorist infrastructure in Syria to give rise to Islamist groups like Al NusraAhrar al-Sham and eventually ISIS.

Up until this point, the protest movement was non-religious; it was inherently populist and nationalist in its orientation….their release opened the gates for the emergence of an Islamist component within the uprising—specifically, eventually, a militant Islamist component…it was those initial releases that allowed the quite dramatic emergence, and then growth, and then consolidation of Islamist and jihadist militancy, to acquire the kind of prominence that it has had for the last couple of years or so.

Charles Lister, Author of Syrian Jihad

Assad’s decision to release jihadists from prison was intended to tinge the opposition with extremist elements to make it harder for Western powers to support any rebel group against his government. Prominent Syria analyst Charles Lister described it as a “devious attempt by the Assad regime to manipulate its adversary, by unleashing those it could safely label as ‘jihadist’ or ‘extremist’ among its ranks”.

Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) soldiers in Syria

The move to release jihadists to dissuade foreign involvement ultimately didn’t work. The hijacking of the Syrian reform initially gave the Obama administration pauses about whether or not to arm the opposition, but our Gulf allies held no such reservations about arming hardline Islamists. Eventually the U.S. decided to go ahead and arm the Syrian opposition even when it was clear it had been overrun with extremists who were not fighting for a “democratic” or “secular” Syria.

The tendency of the U.S. to support regime change, even at the risk of empowering extremists, belies one of the most problematic aspects of American foreign policy – does the U.S. actually intervene to uphold democracy and human rights?

One needs look no farther than a similar uprising that happened across the pond in a tiny country called Bahrain. Bahrain’s demographics are almost the direct opposite of Syria’s – 60-70% of the nation is Shia but is suppressed economically and politically by the minority Sunnis who control the government.

Protests in Bahrain against Al Khalifa monarchy – February 2011

Often called the “Forgotten Revolution” of the Arab Spring, the 2011 uprisings in Bahrain saw hundreds of thousands in the streets demanding the removal of the Al Khalifa monarchy and for more inclusive political and economic reform in the country. Like Assad, Bahrain’s leaders engaged in a brutal crackdown of the protests which included arbitrary imprisonmenttorturing of prisoners, denial of medical care and out right killing of over a hundred protestors by government police.

The U.S. response could not have been more opposite than how it was in Syria.

At the onset of the protests Obama voiced support for a “dialogue initiative” between the monarchy and the opposition and to “return to a process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there.” After the government response turned violent, the U.S. would simply ask the Bahrain monarchy to “hold accountable” those responsible for human-rights abuses against unarmed demonstrators. That was the beginning and end of the US’s support for democracy and human rights in Bahrain.

At no point did the US call for the king of Bahrain to step down (certainly not declare the king a “war criminal” like they did for Assad) nor provide any diplomatic, humanitarian or armed support to the opposition. The US in fact went to such great lengths to AVOID looking like it supported the protestors in Bahrain that the State Department blanked a media story where the protestors stated that the United States supported them. The most direct aid the US gave to the protestors in Bahrain was when Ludovic Hood, a US embassy official, reportedly brought a box of doughnuts out to the protesters

Protestors fleeing Bahraini military crackdowns – May 2011

To many observers, the lackluster response from the U.S. came as no surprise. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s critically important 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf and is one of our critical allies in deterring Iran. Not only that, Bahrain is one of the largest clients of the U.S. defense industry. Since 1993, the US defense industry has sold over $400 million dollars of arms to Bahrain and like Russia’s arms relationship with Assad, this showed no sign of letting up despite a brewing civil war.

“Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule,” said a U.S. official. “Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail.”

During the Bahrain’s violent crackdown on the opposition the Obama administration tried to follow through on a $53 million arms deal to the Bahrain monarchy. Congressional Democrats sharply criticized the administration and invoked the Leahy Amendment in demanding that the U.S. halt military aid to Bahrain’s security forces due to human-rights violations.

However, the State Department was able to use a legal loophole to continue to sell the arms to Bahrain during their brutal suppression of the protests without notification to Congress or a public announcement (a small donation to the Clinton Foundation may have helped). The arms sale included a wide variety of weapons systems, ammunition, armored personnel carriers and helicopter gunships along with $70,000 worth of arms sales classified as “toxicological agents.” This began to fuel speculation that Bahrain was in fact killing its protestors using US-manufactured weaponry and with tear-gas supplied by the United States.

Obama and Clinton with Crown prince of Bahrain Salman al-Khalifa – June 2011

Bahrain’s uprising ended when Saudi Arabia’s military entered Bahrain to forcefully suppress the revolts.  Human rights abuses by the Bahraini monarchy against its people continue to this day and the nation is considered the new Apartheid nation. U.S. approved arm sales continue to go to the Bahraini kingdom and anti-American resentment is sky high in the country.

Understandably Russia accused the US of setting double standards at the UN Security Council, and this was one of the main stumbling blocks to a diplomatic resolution early  in the Syrian conflict. The Russians rejected the U.S. demands that Assad step down and Russia end its military alliance with Syria while the U.S. was covertly arming Assad’s opposition and was supporting Bahrain’s monarchy in its repression of a similar uprising.

“Why is the US determined to sell weapons to Bahrain after the Bahraini authorities, with help from the Saudis, suppressed the Arab Spring in Bahrain? Russia doesn’t see any problems selling weapons to Syria if the CIA and French and British secret services are shipping military hardware via Turkey to the rebels.”

Russian Defense Analyst Ruslan Pukhov

The collapse of the Syrian peace process despite numerous conferences, summits, negotiations, peace initiatives, cease-fires etc etc etc may be the most depressing part of the Syrian war. There is no one nation responsible for the collective failure of the world to let Syria implode over the last six years as international diplomacy has been characterized by relentless finger pointing, broken promises and back stabbing. There’s a lot of blame to share, including on the U.S. for not getting an achievable political solution to the Syria crisis back in 2012 before the situation spiraled out of control.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov meeting at the beginning of the crisis in Syria in 2012

Section 3: What’s Happening Next In Syria?

So there are a range of things that could happen next in Syria, but let me quickly paint the grim picture of the situation the next U.S. president will be walking into.

Diplomacy has collapsed completely. After trading allegations of violating the latest cease-fire, the collapsed truce has seen Russia and the Assad government continue their horrific siege of Aleppo to wipe out the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian rebel groups on the ground represent a variety political and religious ideologies, but extremism and non-secular agendas are rampant amongst many/most of them. The so called “moderate” Free Syrian Army is neither moderate, nor really a coherent army…and they hate the U.S  so we have no real allies on the ground either.

Thousands of Syrian refugees continue to pour into Europe and neighboring states while ISIS continues to stage devastating terror attacks around the world.

There is a growing belief that the time for a diplomatic/political solution to the Syria crisis is over. Diplomats in the State Department are urging the president to begin directly striking the Assad government’s forces rather than funding unreliable proxies. A decision that could possibly lead to a war with Russia. What will the next President do?

Chapter 10: Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton – Early Signs On How The Two Will Handle Syria


The next U.S. president will begin their term in the Oval Office having to answer one simple question on this issue – am I willing to accept an outcome in the Syrian war in which Bashar al-Assad stays in power? 

Right now it appears that Hillary Clinton would answer that question saying no, Assad must step down and Donald Trump of all people would say, yes Assad can stay in power.

That’s right, the loathsome TV character that is Donald Trump might actually be the anti-war candidate for Syria. And a lot of that has to do with his relationship with Russia. 

There has been a general cloud suspicion of Russian activity over the 2016 election and at this stage there are some obvious signs that the Trumps, their business, and their inner circle share somewhat close ties to the Russian elite. Trump and Putin themselves have some odd affinity for each other.  Given Russia’s significant political and military commitment to keep Assad in power, they have a vested interested in the next president stopping support to Assad’s opposition.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy advisors are a motley crew of conservative think-tank folk that are pretty unconventional in the broader conservative foreign policy establishment. One of his advisors, Carter Page is currently being investigated for his ties to the Kremlin and the Russian gas company Gazprom and has openly criticized the U.S. for a “hypocritical focus on democratization”. Trump’s most prominent foreign policy advisor and possible Defense Secretary is General Mike Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).  Mike Flynn was just at a dinner with Vladimir Putin and has publicly favored closer ties to Russia.

Trump advisor and former DIA chief Michael Flynn sitting next to Vladimir Putin at an event for Russian TV Channel RT in December 2015

Trump has so far suggested just that. He has vaguely communicated that the U.S. should devote its efforts in the Middle East to eliminating ISIS rather than continuing to fight Assad.  It’s hard to say whether Trump would actually pursue a policy of restraint in Syria because when it comes to foreign policy he doesn’t really stand for anything nor does he know a whole lot about international affairs. He espouses a very “America first” message but no coherent principles on U.S. use of force. This will make him rely extensively on his foreign policy advisors.

This is not to say the Clinton don’t have ties to Russia…they have many connections to Russia. But Hillary and Putin actually despise each other. Putin is convinced Hillary tried to have him overthrown as President of Russia in 2011 and Russia’s senior diplomats had a difficult working relationship with her while she was Secretary of State during the infamous “Russian reset”.

“In our administration, Secretary Clinton always had a tougher line toward Putin and the Russians than other senior administration officials,” said Michael A. McFaul, an adviser on Russia who served as United States ambassador to Moscow. “It was Putin’s strong belief that we, with Clinton in the lead, were trying to meddle with his regime.”

Clinton actually spent most of her time as Secretary of State from 2011-2012 feuding with the Russians as she tried to organize international coalitions to oust Assad from power – someone she has called a “war criminal” and has demanded to step down since 2011. This effort ended after an infamous breakdown of a potential Syrian peace plan with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan at the June 2012 Geneva conference.

Clinton’s persistent, strongly anti-Russian rhetoric throughout the campaign and historical animosity for Assad has foreshadowed what could be a massive showdown in Syria between the U.S. and Russia. The Clinton foreign policy team has communicated a much clearer message about what direction they would likely go in Syria – directly striking Assad.

The most prominent Clinton’s foreign policy advisors that have signaled they would support a more aggressive policy against the Assad regime are former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and former CIA director Mike Morell. Flournoy is considered the likely tap to become Clinton’s Defense Secretary and Mike Morell could see himself again in charge of the CIA.

Michele Flournoy – Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, likely Secretary of Defense in Clinton administration

In an August interview, former CIA director Mike Morell advocated the U.S. start covertly killing Russian and Iranian soldiers that are supporting Assad in Syria. He further proposed that U.S. forces begin bombing Syrian government installations, including government offices, aircraft and presidential guard positions in order to “scare Assad.”

In a June interview, Flournoy said she would “direct U.S. troops to push President Bashar al-Assad’s forces out of southern Syria” and specifically advocated what she called “limited military coercion” that could pressure Syrian Bashar al-Assad to negotiate and give the opposition the leverage they need. She has also supported the push for a “No-Fly Zone” in northern Syria – a territory or an area over which aircraft are not permitted to fly – something that Russia has explicitly warned the U.S. not to pursue.

Hillary Clinton herself has long advocated for the implementation of a No-Fly Zone  as a necessary next step in the Syrian conflict.

I am advocating the no-fly zone both because I think it would help us on the ground to protect Syrians; I’m also advocating it because I think it gives us some leverage in our conversations with Russia

Hillary Clinton, December 2015

Trump and his closest foreign policy advisor General Mike Flynn have also suggested that they support creating air and ground “safety zones” in Syria resembling a No-Fly Zone

Well, you know, I’ve always said we need to have a safe zone….we have to have some kind of a safe zone. And we have to get the Gulf states to pay for it.

Donald Trump told WYFF News 4 in February 2016

This is a proposal that Obama has directly opposed doing in Syria along with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president’s military advisors.

Former Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said imposing a no-fly zone would require as many as 70,000 American servicemen to dismantle Syria’s sophisticated antiaircraft system and then impose a 24-hour watch over the country. Current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford said during testimony to the Senate that creating a no-fly zone over Syria would require declaring war on Assad and Russia, a “fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make.”

Hypothetical No-Fly Zone in northern Syria

It seems like the U.S. could be on a path to some form of a No-Fly Zone regardless given the pressure now for the U.S. to make a decision about what to do in Syria.

Based on Trump’s lack of any real foreign policy ideas on Syria and actual praise of Vladimir Putin throughout the campaign,  perhaps Trump would seek not to escalate tensions with Russia by imposing a No-Fly Zone in Syria. Then again it’s really hard to predict what Trump might do. As someone who has supported the torture program, a massive build up of the military and generally being a loose cannon on foreign policy, anything is possible. Trump has also said he would like to see 30,000 U.S. troops on the ground to combat ISIS so he will be escalating U.S. involvement in the Middle East regardless.

It remains to be seen how Clinton would proceed with the Russians in Syria. On her campaign website  her Syria policy right now is “Pursuing a diplomatic strategy aimed at resolving Syria’s civil war”….but given the utter collapse of diplomacy, the internal frustration within the State Department and what looks like a bipartisan foreign policy team that supports a hawkish approach to Assad, the prospects look grim.

It’s important to remember that the Syrian conflict is a global war, not one that hinges on whatever the U.S. chooses to do. To that end, I have 10 questions that I’d like to ask the candidates for President. Maybe some of these will make it into the final debate.

Ten Questions For the Presidential Candidates

1. Will you accept an end to the Syrian conflict which sees Bashar al-Assad stay in power?

2. If Assad must step down, do you have an idea of who you would like to see replace him?

3. If you decide that diplomacy is no longer a feasible solution in Syria, how would you increase U.S. efforts to counter the Assad regime directly? Would you continue the  the CIA train & equip program for vetted “moderate” rebel groups or would you authorize airstrikes against Assad regime targets?

4. Does the United States recognize the Syrian rebel group Jabhat Fateh-al Sham as distinct from Al Qaeda, or will it become listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and not receive any U.S. support ?

5. If your administration wanted to increase the scope of U.S. involvement in the fight against Assad or ISIS, would it be subject to Congressional approval?

6. What will your administration do about Turkey’s antagonism with U.S.-backed Kurdish forces? Will the U.S. continue relying on the Kurdish military to fight ISIS?

7. Would you support an independent Kurdish initiative with the Kurds retaining autonomous territory in Syria?

8. Would you support the enforcement of a No-Fly Zone over parts of Syria? What would be the penalty for violating the No-Fly Zone and who would enforce it?

9. Would you put U.S. ground troops in Syria to fight ISIS, if so how many?

10. Who would you nominate as your Secretary of State?

Chapter 11: Closing Thoughts – How It All Ends

Turkish President Erdogan and Vladimir Putin restart their relationship

There is currently a monumental shift in global politics underway and it centers around a longtime U.S. allies in Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia.

At the end of July 2016 there was an attempted coup by the Turkish military to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from power. The coup failed and Erdogan has stayed in power, now purging entire parts of the government who may oppose him. Erdogan and the Turkish public have firmly pointed their finger at the U.S. as secretly being behind the coup and supporting the plotters.

Turkey has accused Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric for masterminding the coup. Gulen resides freely in Pennsylvania under CIA protection and the United States has been dragging its feet over Ankara’s demand for Gulen’s extradition. This has raised anti-American feelings among Turks and the Turkish government to a fever pitch. (To make it that much worse, Gulen’s political allies have donated a lot of money to the Clinton campaign).

There are many layers behind why the U.S. may have wanted Erdogan out but the result has been a re-forged friendship between Turkey and Russia. Erdogan and Putin met for the first time at the beginning of August in a high profile warming of relations since Turkey infamously shot down a Russian warplane in Syria in 2015.

The new Turkey-Russia relationship has some serious questions in that Turkey has long wanted Assad gone, while Russia has been Assad’s strongest backer. But this is why the pipeline war is important.

Alternative gas pipeline routes going from Russia through Turkey

Turkey has now pivoted away from backing the Qatar-Saudi Arabia pipeline which drove its quest to remove Assad from power and has since inked a deal with Russia to construct the “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline. The Turkish Stream is meant to replace the defunct South Stream pipeline in the Black Sea as an alternate conduit to sell natural gas into Europe.

More so, there is a growing belief that Iran may actually be prepared to strike a deal with Turkey that in exchange for Turkey to stop supporting Assad’s opposition, the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline could actually become the Iran-Iraq-Turkey pipeline en-route to Europe. These are all tentative ideas, but what is clear is that one of the most vital U.S. allies in the Middle East is turning towards our rivals.

Since the rapprochement of Russia and Turkey,  U.S.-Turkey relations have gone straight downward. Things are so hostile that the U.S. had to move out its nuclear weapons hosted at the Turkish Air Base at Incirlik. Turkey proceeded to not alert the U.S. that it would send its army to cross into Syria and has now turned its fire on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces forcing them to withdraw east over the Euphrates River.

To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia, another critical U.S. ally, has started drifting towards Russia as well.

A lot of this is driven by the Saudi’s hating the Iranian nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated with them. In the zero-sum cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it was viewed as a historical betrayal by the U.S. to remove the sanctions on Iran and potentially accelerate their path to a nuclear weapon in a decade.


In fact, it is now widely believed that the Obama administration didn’t make good on its “red line” threat in 2013 to strike Assad if he used chemical weapons, because Iran threatened to back out of the nuclear deal in the early stage of the negotiations.

Rather than it achieving the regional security we hoped, the Saudi’s just signed a contract with Vladimir Putin to build 16 nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, raising the possibility of a nuclear arms race with Iran if the nuclear deal collapses (which is looking that way). It’s also a sign that Saudi Arabia may be giving up on the Qatar-Saudi-Turkey pipeline that Russia has gone to such lengths to prevent in Syria.

All of this has very bad implications for the U.S. and its petrodollar, which is reliant on U.S. denominated oil sales dominating the oil market. There are reports that the Saudi’s are preparing to dump the petrodollar as OPEC’s currency and are considering giving Russia OPEC membership. Things are not looking good between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and the souring relationship made headlines last week when the U.S. Congress overrode President Obama’s veto on a bill that would allow 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia (I’ve written about the role of Saudi Arabia in financing the 9/11 attacks here).


The end to the petrodollar could be especially devastating to the U.S. economy now because the U.S. dollar is facing a lot of trouble at home.

For the last 6 years the U.S. Federal Reserve has pursued a policy of “quantitative easing” which has printed $12 trillion dollars in new money to buy up the toxic assets held by the banks in the 2008 Wall Street collapse. The end of the petrodollar would cause trillions of more dollars to flood back into the U.S., skyrocketing inflation and make the U.S. dollar lose its grip as the world’s reserve currency.

If there is another significant crash in the U.S. economy then we may be looking at a re-structuring of the global monetary system and there has already been calls for the end of dollar domination in institutions like the World Bank  and IMF.

Over the last few months there has been a growing consensus amongst economists that the U.S. economy is about the enter another recession – in fact Deutsche Bank has said there’s a 60% chance it’ll happen within the next year.

In recent months, the gap between the three-month and 10-year Treasuries have begun to close rapidly—a signal to some investors that a recession may be on its way. “This relentless flattening of the curve is worrisome,”  said the team of analysts led by Deutsche Bank, referring to the graph that plots bonds of different maturities against their yields. “Given the historical tendency of a very flat or inverted yield curve to precede a U.S. recession, the odds of the next economic downturn are rising.”

Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has called this collapse part of a “coming global re-alignment” where global power will inevitably become decentralized from the United States where many regions of the world will crafting their own agendas which America don’t have the power to control.

Russia and China, the two major global powers other than the United States seem to be preparing to transition to a gold-backed currency to wean off the Western currency system. The two have been voraciously buying gold in the international market and some economists are predicting gold will again come to dominate our monetary system.


The United States stands at a critical crossroads in its foreign policy beginning with Syria. Whether or not it chooses to escalate the conflict against Assad remains to be seen, but there are larger tectonic plates in global politics shifting based on this decision.

The U.S. has enjoyed the luxury of being the sole great power in the world for the last 30 years, but the war in Syria may be where we look back and realized this was no longer true. The Syrian war has demonstrated that there are many other countries who have the military and economic power to challenge the U.S. dominated international system. It will be interesting to see which of our presidents embraces this reality and which will fight to prevent it from happening.

Will the U.S. continue its great power Cold War with Russia and re-up the war in Syria or will we finally give up on the project of regime change all together and maybe try and work with our rivals instead of constantly going to war with them?

About The Author

Chetan Hebbale is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. focused on international economics, climate change, and sustainability.

Prior to this, he spent over 4 years at Deloitte Consulting working on technology and strategy projects at the CDC and U.S. Treasury Department.

He is a native of Atlanta, GA and attended the University of Georgia.

Read More:

Foreign Policy Investigative Report Long Form

9/11 Victims Are Trying To Sue Saudi Arabia, If The U.S. Will Let Them

UPDATE 5/3/2020: Since first publishing this piece back in April 2016, the 28 pages referenced were partially de-classified by the Obama administration and are available to the public to read here. The families of 9/11 victims were promised by President Trump a full de-classification as well as additional evidence to be released, but the request was rejected by Attorney General Bill Barr and the Department of Justice on the grounds that their release would imperil national security.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. implicated in providing financial support to the hijackers in Los Angeles, has been replaced from his role with his daughter Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud.

Last week President Obama declared that he would veto the Justice Against The Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Interestingly, this bill has bipartisan support in Congress and was publicly supported by both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail the night before the New York primary just a few days ago.

The bill would make it easier for the victims and families of 9/11 to sue official members of a state government if they played a direct role in assisting or abetting the 9/11 hijackers.

One of the most controversial elements of the bill is that it narrows the scope of a legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity This is the idea that a state government cannot be held legally responsible for any wrongdoing conducted by its citizens and is thus protected from civil suits or criminal prosecution.

15 of the 19 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia exposing the Kingdom to potential legal liability if the Justice Against The Sponsors Of Terrorism Act passes.

The country that faces the most legal risk if the bill passes is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia while 2 were from the United Arab Emirates, 1 from Egypt, and 1 from Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any connection with the 9/11 hijackers, calling any such allegations as resting on “grave distortions of the record, implausible interpretations of the allegations, facts and evidence”.

But the FBI and Congressional investigators tasked with getting to the bottom of who provided financial and material support for the 9/11 hijackers aren’t so sure.

Published in 2004, the 9/11 Commission was the final report from the congressional investigation into the causes and events leading up to the attack on the World Trade Center.

The report is almost 600 pages long but does not include the final 28 pages from the last chapter titled “Part 4: Finding, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters.

The Bush administration sealed the pages and said that their publication would damage American intelligence operations and reveal “sources and methods that would make it harder for us to win the war on terror”. There has been an ongoing push to declassify these last pages of the 9/11 Commission now that we are well over a decade since the attack happened.

Only members of Congress are able to read the 28 pages, but even they must go through a difficult process to get clearance from the House Intelligence Committee. Once getting approval, they can read the 28 pages inside a highly secure, soundproof facility in the basement of Congress where they are not allowed to take any notes and are observed closely while reading them.

Victims and families are pushing Congress to declassify the last 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report contending that it contains corroborating evidence for Saudi involvement in supporting the hijackers.

Bernie Sanders has not read the 28 pages thus far and actually said he won’t, while Hillary Clinton would not comment when asked if she had read them. From those who have read the 28 pages they have indicated that there is significant evidence of Saudi involvement in supporting the hijackers.

“The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11 and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier.”

Bob Graham (D) – Florida

“Those twenty-eight pages tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 Report. The evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 hijacking is very disturbing and the real question is whether it was sanctioned at the royal-family level or beneath that, and whether these leads were followed through.”

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D) – Massachusetts, said to the New Yorker in 2014

“I had to stop every two or three pages and rearrange my perception of history.”

Rep. Thomas Massie (R) – Kentucky in a 2014 press conference

The victims and families of 9/11 are pushing the Obama administration to declassify the 28 pages so they can be used as evidence in numerous on-going lawsuits filed by the families targeting Saudi charities, banks, and individuals.

FBI agents in the Joint Terrorism Task Force believe there is already enough information support allegations that the hijackers received direct assistance from Saudi government officials, the most prominent of whom is Prince Bandar bin Sultan – the former Saudi Ambassador to the United States.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi Ambassador to the US, is the highest profile Saudi official implicated thus far in supporting the 9/11 hijackers.

According to those who have read the 28 pages the story picks up with the arrival of two young Saudis in Los Angeles in January 2000: Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. These two were the first wave of the 9/11 hijackers and neither of them spoke English well or had much money.

Two weeks after their arrival, a man named Omar al-Bayoumi met with the two at a halal restaurant in Culver City. Bayoumi was an employee of the Saudi aviation-services company Dallah Avco.

Before meeting with Hazmi and Mihidhar, Bayoumi spent about an hour meeting with an official from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs at the Saudi Embassy in Los Angeles – Fahad al-Thumairy. In 2003, Thumairy was stripped of his diplomatic visa and deported because of suspected ties to terrorists.

After meeting with Thumairy, Bayoumi met the two hijackers-to-be and invited them to move to San Diego, where he set them up in his same apartment complex. Because the two had no bank account, he paid their security deposit and rent. He also introduced them to other members of the local Arab community, including the imam of a local mosque, Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki later became the most prominent spokesperson for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, ultimately being killed in a drone strike in 2011.

9/11 Hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar (top row) were helped by Saudi handlers Fahad al-Thumairy and Omar al-Bayoumi (bottom row) in California who provided lodging, food, and money for flight lessons. Bayoumi recieved monthly stipends of $2000 from Prince Bandar’s wife.

Bayoumi was in frequent contact with the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., and with the consulate in Los Angeles. After two months, Bayoumi’s wife began receiving monthly stipends of around $2,000. By September 11th, 2001, $130,000 was transferred into Bayoumi’s wife’s bank account. With the money, Bayoumi was able to sustain the cost of living for the hijackers for 2 years in which time they were also able to obtain flying lessons at flight schools in Florida.

The stipends came in the form of cashier’s checks, purchased from Washington’s Riggs Bank by Princess Haifa bint Faisal. She is the daughter of the late King Faisal and wife of the Saudi Ambassador to the United States – Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Federal investigators in the 9/11 task force said virtually every road led back to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, as well as the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles. Yet time and time again, they were called off from pursuing leads because of “diplomatic immunity.”

George H.W. Bush meets with Prince Bandar bin Sultan in the Oval Office in March 1991.

One FBI investigator complained that instead of investigating Bandar, the US government protected him. Literally. He said the State Department assigned a security detail to help guard Bandar not only at the embassy, but also at his mansion in McLean, Virginia.

Former FBI agent John Guandolo, who worked 9/11 and related al Qaeda cases out of the bureau’s Washington field office, says Bandar should have been a key suspect in the 9/11 probe.

“The Saudi ambassador funded two of the 9/11 hijackers through a third party,” Guandolo said. “He should be treated as a terrorist suspect, as should other members of the Saudi elite class who the US government knows are currently funding the global jihad.”

The source added that the task force wanted to jail a number of embassy employees, “but the embassy complained to the US attorney” and their diplomatic visas were revoked as a compromise. “The FBI was thwarted from interviewing the Saudis we wanted to interview by the White House,” said former FBI agent Mark Rossini, who was involved in the investigation of al Qaeda and the hijackers. The White House “let them off the hook.”

George W. Bush meets with Bandar at his Texas Ranch in August 2002. He was considered such a close friend of the Bush Family that he was informally called “Bandar Bush”.

What’s more, Rossini said the bureau was told no subpoenas could be served to produce evidence tying the departing Saudi suspects to the 9/11 attacks. The FBI, in turn, iced local investigations that led back to the Saudi’s.

Those who have read the 28 pages believe they contain “incontrovertible evidence” that Prince Bandar, along with other Saudi government officials and members of the Saudi family, were directly linked to funding the hijackers in 9/11. Bandar’s father was Sultan bin Abdulaziz, who became the Crown prince and heir apparent to the Saudi throne in 2005 until his death in 2011. Bandar ultimately was ousted from his role as Ambassador to the United States by the new Saudi King Salman in 2013.

In 2005, the government of Saudi Arabia was dismissed from the lawsuits suits on the grounds of sovereign immunity. But in July 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the Kingdom as a defendant. Now Congress may try and eliminate the “sovereign immunity” defense from these issues entirely.

The Saudi monarchy has threatened to sell off close to $1 trillion in US assets if the bill is passed and signed into law.

President Obama has twice promised to release the 28 pages, but so far has failed to do so. Though his reluctance to approve the bill may have more to do with the legal ramifications for the U.S. by stripping sovereign immunity rather than upsetting a key U.S. ally.

Those who oppose the bill believe that if the U.S. passes this law then other countries could pass similar laws which would put U.S. government officials at risk of being sued for having ties to terrorist attacks against foreign governments.

“It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the president would sign the bill as it’s currently drafted. It could put the United States and our taxpayers and our service members and our diplomats at significant risk if other countries were to adopt a similar law. The whole notion of sovereign immunity is at stake.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, April 18th, 2016

This is perhaps an unsurprising concern given the abundance of documented proof since World War II that the U.S. has directly supported government coups, terrorist groups and paramilitaries in over 35 countries from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

Understandably, the U.S. does not want to open Pandora’s box of litigation and possibly be held accountable in court for its own part in inciting acts of terrorism abroad.

The Obama administration is hesitant to eliminate sovereign immunity as it may expose U.S. government officials to culpability for their role in assisting in revolutions and coups in other countries.

However, the threat of future lawsuits is not the only deterrent that’s keeping the Obama administration from signing off on the bill. Last week, Saudi Arabia threatened to sell off close to $1 trillion in US assets if the bill was passed and signed into law.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir came to Washington himself to personally deliver the message that if the US passed this bill, it would sell of $750 billion worth of US Treasury securities and other assets before they could be frozen by an American court.

But even if the Saudis don’t respond by selling U.S. treasuries, they have other ways to harm the United States. They have enormous leverage over the price of oil which they have dramatically lowered before in an attempt to make U.S. fracking industry unprofitable. They can also scale back paying for American efforts to train “moderate” rebels in Syria in the civil war against Bashar al-Assad.

Ultimately the Obama administration must determine how likely is it that the Justice for the Sponsors of Terrorism Act and the de-classification of the final 28 pages of the 9/11 commission would irreparably damage our relationship with Saudi Arabia, put American citizens and government officials in legal jeopardy, and possibly threaten even more economic or political instability.

Momentum in Congress and support from two presidential candidates may yet result in unmasking the true perpetrators of our nation’s worst terrorist attack, whatever the cost.

Fifteen years later the world continues to live with the aftermath of 9/11 in dealing with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, global surveillance programs, even the Apple vs. FBI showdown.

But the real victims living with the aftermath of 9/11 are still awaiting justice.

About The Author

Chetan Hebbale is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. focused on international economics, climate change, and sustainability.

Prior to this, he spent over 4 years at Deloitte Consulting working on technology and strategy projects at the CDC and U.S. Treasury Department.

He is a native of Atlanta, GA and attended the University of Georgia.

Foreign Policy Short Form

ISIS and the Threat of Chemical Warfare

Since the extremist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) splashed onto the world stage in June of last year, it has continued to dominate headlines as the primary force of terrorism in the Middle East. Through its massive online and social media presence, the group has gained notoriety for its brutal acts of torture including beheading, sexual violence, slavery etc.  As ISIS continues to grow its conquered borders through the region, there is concern that the group will expand its tactics to include chemical weapons and may already have. ISIS has shown a brazen disregard for international opinion, including that of the Muslim community, thus its willingness to escalate its use of chemical warfare is entirely possible. The United Nations needs to take decisive action immediately to ensure that ISIS is not able to acquire lethal chemical weapons.

            Currently ISIS controls large swaths of northern Iraq and Syria and is part of ongoing battles in major urban centers like Tikrit and Baghdad. ISIS’s geographical concentration between Syria and Iraq is particularly concerning given that both countries have a history of chemical weapons development. The Syrian government was known to maintain a stockpile of various chemical agents including mustard, sarin and Vx[1]. The Assad regime’s arsenal of sarin was brought into the global spotlight in September 2013 after it was revealed that the government conducted a sarin attack in the suburbs of Damascus. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein also retained a significant chemical weapons arsenal of mustard, tabun, Vx and sarin which were put to use in campaigns against Iran in the late 1980’s as well as against the Kurdish minority in the north[2]. In both instances, the Organization for the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons (OPCW) sought to dismantle what is left of these chemical stockpiles. However, the process did not begin that long ago – Iraq acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 2009 and Syria in 2013, and the progression has been anything but smooth[3]. Iraq declared its bunkers at the al-Muthanna facility as containing filled and unfilled chemical munitions but due to hazardous conditions in the bunker the OPCW was never able to make an accurate account of the inventory, and sarin/mustard filled rockets may continue to reside in the facility[4]. In Syria there remains declared sites that the OPCW claims have been abandoned but it has not been able to directly verify this – of the 23 facilities declared as chemical weapons production sites only 21 have been directly inspected[5]. Western intelligence sources believe the discrepancy goes even farther – claiming that there are in fact 45 total facilities citing incomplete record-keeping on the part of OPCW inspectors[6]. The location of these remaining 2 known facilities, and possibly dozens more undeclared sites have not been disclosed for security reasons, but this should only fuel the concern of fully functional chemical weapons, or chemical weapons precursors falling into the wrong hands.

            Reports have emerged that ISIS militants have already begun using chlorine based weapons in Iraq. In two separate incidents, once on the Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga and once in Kobani, ISIS successfully deployed crude chlorine rockets killing over 15 people[7]. It is difficult to claim access to Syrian/Iraqi chemical facilities based on the use of chlorine alone since there are millions of tons of it used in commercial applications and it is not a scheduled chemical under the CWC. It does however indicate that ISIS is interested in using chemical weapons and has likely set its targets on acquiring more lethal ones for future endeavors. Recent intelligence reports claims that ISIS may have also deployed a mustard agent in Kobani, suggesting that they may have infiltrated access to Saddam or Assad’s stockpile[8]. This fear is strengthened by local reports that ISIS overran the al-Muthanna facility north of Baghdad during their siege of the city. While any weapons in these facilities are certainly old and will have lost most of their toxicity, they could still be used in improvised ways as “dirty bombs”[9]. Due to the confidential location of Syria’s facilities, it is hard to know for sure if ISIS is controlling cities around the weapons sites but we should err on the side of caution. The Islamic State is slowing marching toward Damascus as it has taken over major cities like Raqqah and is currently fighting for Syria’s second largest city Aleppo. It is not hard to believe they have captured government officials in the cities they’ve conquered with intimate knowledge of the locations of the undisclosed chemical facilities and are within months of possessing even more lethal chemical weapons than they already have.

The United Nations needs to take immediate action to militarily secure any and all chemical facilities in Iraq and Syria to prevent the Islamic State from acquiring any possible chemical weapons or precursors. While the US airstrike campaign has met with some moderate success, ISIS’s recruitment and funding has only increased and any ground they lose will result in increased desperation to gain it back. ISIS has already displayed a willingness to use low-level chemical weapons, if it possesses nerve agents like sarin, one can only imagine the horrors they could unleash across the Middle East.       

[1] Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament Annual Report 2012–2013, July 10, 2013.

[2] “An Overview of the Chemical Munitions found in Iraq” –

[3] Johnathan Tucker – “Iraq Faces Major Challenges in Destroying Its Legacy Chemical Weapons


[4] Ibid. 3

[5] Nikitin, Mary Beth, Kerr, Paul, Feickert, Andrew. “Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress”, September 30th, 2013, Congressional Research Service

[6] Ibid. 5

[7] Katrina, Montogomery. “Syrian Chemical Weapons, in ISIS Hands and Renewed Civilian Attacks”,

[8] Ibid. 7

[9] Ibid 8

Foreign Policy Long Form

Why the United Nations Acted in Libya But Not Syria


            The Arab Spring marked an era of political and social turmoil across the Middle East that left the region, and world, changed forever. Between 2010 and 2012 a revolutionary wave of riots, demonstrations and protests broke out across thirteen Middle Eastern and African countries resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, collapsed governments and in some cases all out civil war. Two of the most pivotal events of the Arab Spring were the 2011 uprisings against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.  

            Libya had been ripe for domestic turmoil since the inception of the Gaddafi regime. In 1969, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his military entourage called the Free Officers, deposed of the sitting government led by King Idris[1]. In what was a “bloodless coup”, Gaddafi abolished the monarchy and established the Libyan Arab Republic. However, Gaddafi’s consolidation and expansion of power sowed the seeds for what would ultimately become the Libyan Revolution of 2011. The Free Officers proclaimed themselves as the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) and under the leadership of Gaddafi began purging the moderate and secular voices in the government.  Following his ascension to power, Gaddafi eliminated the Libyan constitution and began subtly instituting sharia law through the legal system. Alcohol was banned, night clubs and Christian churches were removed and the official language of all government documentation, road signs etc. became Arabic[2]. Dissent against government became illegal under government law and Gaddafi even asserted that if anyone was found guilty of forming a political party they would be executed[3]. Coupled with radical social and political reforms, the RCC banned trade unions, outlawed workers strikes, nationalized the oil industry and even went as far as to temporarily suspend newspaper circulation[4]. Gaddafi tactically placed his inner circle of friends and family members into all major sectors of the economy and government in order to retain a tight control over all the on-goings in Libya. A leaked US intelligence cable later observed of Libya’s economy that it was “a kleptocracy in which the government – either the Gaddafi family itself or its close political allies – has a direct stake in anything worth buying, selling or owning”[5].

By the mid-1980’s, Libya’s oil sector began plunging in revenues from $21 billion annually to $5.4 billion – a fourth of its size[6]. As a result, internal dissent that had been brewing in Libya for years against Gaddafi’s regime began to ramp up both in scope and intensity.  Gaddafi in response created the Ministry for Mass Mobilization and Revolutionary Leadership to restrict their communications and planning and leading to hundreds being taken as political prisoners. Between 2009 and 2011, the Freedom Press Index had actually rated Libya the most censored state in both the Middle East and North Africa[7].  A number of failed assassination attempts against Gaddafi became symptomatic of the popular opinion against Gaddafi as food prices began to skyrocket, unemployment surged and political repression was at an all-time high[8].

As the Arab Spring unfolded in Tunisia in January 2011, Gaddafi began to fear that revolutionary fever would begin to spill into his borders and tried implementing preventative measures – subsidizing food costs, releasing prisoners etc[9]. His attempts, however, were to no avail. Revolutionaries seized this opportunity to organize the decade’s long dissatisfaction against the Gaddafi regime and initiated mass protests across the country. Social media played a critical role in this organization as location, dates and times broadcasted across the internet resulted in massive protests not only in the capitol but in all surrounding cities. On February 17th, protestors organized a “Day of Rage” across the cities of Benghazi, Tripoli, Ajdabiya, Derna, Zintan and Bayda resulting in Libyan security forces firing live ammunition into the crowds killing dozens of protestors, including those unarmed[10]. The National Transitional Council (NTC) was formed following the Day of Rage to consolidate the various groups pushing for regime change in Libya, thus marking the beginning of an all-out civil war for control of Libya.

 As the protests raged on, the government’s violent response continued to escalate. Gaddafi forces reportedly used “snipers, artillery, helicopter gunships, warplanes, anti-aircraft weaponry, and warships against protestors and funeral processions”[11]. In response to police forces surrendering and in some cases joining rebel forces, Gaddafi began to hire mercenaries from other African countries who began to publicly rape, mutilate, and execute captured fighters[12]. Amnesty International reported that Gaddafi forces went as far as targeting paramedics helping the injured, targeting ambulances and reported evidence of torture from prisoners released from prison sites[13].

The international community responded promptly to what it saw as violations of human rights in Libya. On March 17th, 2011 (one month after the Day of Rage), the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 to authorize international military intervention to resolve the violent civil war raging in Libya[14]. By invoking the United Nations “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine, the international community was able to justify impeding Libya’s sovereignty for the sake of civilian protection. Resolution 1973 called for an immediate cease-fire, a no-fly zone over Libya’s airspace, an arms embargo with forcible inspection of all ships and planes that entered its sea and airports as well as a travel ban and asset freeze on Gaddafi and his inner circle. Within days, 19 countries in total mobilized against Libya to topple the Gaddafi regime. American and British naval forces fired over 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles along the border. The US led the air-bombing campaign with support from the French, British and Canadian air forces before passing control to NATO[15]. By the end of the summer, Gaddafi’s forces had retreated from most major cities and only had control over Tripoli. In August, Gaddafi’s forces surrendered at the Battle of Tripoli with rebel forces storming Gaddafi’s compound[16]. Muammar Gaddafi himself was not found and killed till October, but the Gaddafi regime had been toppled at the conclusion of this battle. When the dust had settled, it is estimated that approximately 30,000 Libyans were killed in the effort to remove Gaddafi[17].

A 3 hour flight away, events had transpired very similarly in Syria. In 1963, the government of President al-Quwatli was deposed in a bloodless military coup by Syrian Ba’athist officers, which included Captain Hafeez al-Assad, to form the Syrian Arab Republic[18]. The sitting government instated was led by the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party, but another coup in 1966, this time led by then Defense Minister Hafeez al-Assad, over threw the traditional leaders of the Ba’ath Party and placed him as President[19].  The inception of the new Syrian state was tumultuous as it was embroiled in conflict in the region with Israel and Lebanon. The new Assad regime played a central role in the Yom Kippur War against Israel and the ensuing occupation of Lebanon which lasted until 2005[20]. Following the death of Hafeez al-Assad in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad assumed power. His ascension to power quickly put to rest promises for democratic reform in the country as Syria had essentially been ruled as a single-party state since Hafeez had come to power. The Assad family, like Gaddafi’s, retained a tight control over all the on-goings in Syria’s affairs by placing family members and friends in critical positions of power. This cronyism fueled discontent as Bashar’s younger brother Maher and brother in law Assef Shawkat who served as Ministers of Defense were known to target Sunni Muslims and Kurds by using their police powers to marginalize their cultural and language rights[21] Bashar had inspired hope for political reform, but security crackdowns began taking political activists who called for democratic elections prisoners. The state of human rights continued to deteriorate as public gatherings were banned, security forces were granted sweeping powers for detention and arrest and rampant censoring of the media[22]. These actions squashed any hope for governmental change and set in motion the discord that led to the 2011 uprising[23]. The situation in Syria worsened as time went on as socio-economic inequality increased sharply and by 2011 the country faced record high rates of unemployment, steep deterioration in the standard of living and sharp increase in food prices[24].

As revolutions took place in Tunisia, demonstrations in Syria broke out modestly. Assad too attempted to make concessions to the public to calm tensions to no avail – releasing political prisoners, cutting taxes, increasing job opportunities etc.[25]. As demonstrations against the government increased in size, the Syrian government began capturing and arresting tens of thousands of protestors, organizers and activists without warrant. Organizers even planned their own “Day of Rage” using social media that never bore fruition unfortunately due to these arrests. Security forces began cutting power, water supplies and phone lines to prevent activists from organizing. The Syrian Army began moving into cities like Daara, Homs and Baniyas – hot beds of revolutionary fever – and began blockading the cities. The overwhelming suppression of protests through violent means by the Assad government is what kept the escalation of demonstrations limited from March to the end of the summer while the revolutions raged on in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Reports began emerging of thousands being held in prison sites subject to torture, rape and execution. Human Rights Watch reported that bodies discovered “were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution”[26]. The conflict took on a new form in July after seven Syrian Army officers defected to form the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose sole purpose was to bring down the Assad regime – thus attempting to organize all the different opposition groups under one name. By September 2011, Syria was in full-fledged civil war as the FSA was engaged in active insurgency in multiple cities across Syria with the fiercest battles occurring in Homs and Idlib. By the end of 2011, following months of bloodshed between the government forces and the Free Syrian Army, approximately 10,000 Syrians had been killed with almost twice as many injured or imprisoned[27].

The international community’s reaction to the violence in Syria could be described as lacking at best. As violence continued to mount in the spring of 2011, the United Nations only issued statements condemning the violence and encouraging dialogue[28]. By the end of March, the UN established a commission to investigate human rights violations occurring[29]. In October (7 months after violent suppression of protests began), the United Nations Security Council attempted to pass a resolution condemning the Assad government and threatened sanctions if there was continued military action against protestors (no military plan to intervene), but it was vetoed by Russia and China[30]. The United States took unilateral action to impose sanctions on the Assad regime and banned imports, but it was not until it was revealed that that government had used chemical weapons against the opposition in 2013 that the United Nations took any concrete action which only entailed forcing Syria to surrender its chemical weapons[31].  To this day, there has been no approved international military intervention to halt the bloodshed between civilians and the government despite almost 200,000 Syrians being killed, evidence of torture, chemical weapons use and a litany of human rights violations[32]. Above all, 3 years since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

            The disparity in action, both in scope and timeliness, taken to address the Libyan Civil War of 2011 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011 is understandably confounding to the casual observer. The history of both of Libya and Syria, the path to revolution and the government response bear strikingly similar chords, yet how the international community responded to both of these crises remains staggeringly different. Why did the United Nations feel a responsibility to militarily intervene to protect civilians in Libya in their struggle against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, but has not invoked that same responsibility in the face of similar and potentially even more egregious atrocities occurring in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria?

Research Question

Why did the international community take decisive action to intervene in the 2011 Libyan Civil War but not in the 2011 Syrian Civil War?

Literature Review

            Scholars and analysts have also recognized this disparity in action by the United Nations with regards to Syria and Libya and have centered their research around the United Nations “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine.

            The concept of R2P emerged after the international community’s failure to prevent mass atrocities in Rwanda amongst other places in the 1990s. Its establishment was revolutionary to international politics in that it reconceptualized the relationship between sovereignty and human rights where for the first time sovereignty could not be considered an absolute right, but a responsibility it had to uphold. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty Report in 2001 outlined the three principle goals of the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine: the responsibility to prevent a population from suffering serious harm, the responsibility to react if such harm occurs, and the responsibility to rebuild after an intervention[33]. If the host state was perpetuating “serious harm” to its population or was “unwilling or unable” to cease the violence, the international community would assume the responsibility to protect. “Serious harm” had been defined as actual or imminent “large scale loss of life” or “large scale ethnic cleansing”[34].

Military intervention as part of R2P was considered a measure under extenuating circumstances. The report outlined four scenarios in which military action was justified: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing[35]. It was no surprise that the military intervention clause drew the most criticism from members of the United Nations. Countries like Russia and China viewed this clause with suspicion, fearing that it was merely another tool of Western powers to use as a mask for pursuing other strategic military, political or economic objectives in a given region. To assuage fears of abuse of military power, the R2P laws were amended.  The decision to militarily intervene was placed solely within the hands of the United Nations Security Council, non-coercive means like diplomacy and humanitarian assistance would be the primary modes of action and the threshold to intervene was raised to not just a state being unwilling or unable to halt the violence, but a more difficult standard of “manifestly failing” to protect[36]. Following these changes, the R2P doctrine was adopted unanimously by UN member states at the 2005 conference.

As is, R2P is not a law, nor is it part of any international treaty or gained the status of customary international law. The Responsibility to Protect is more of a concept whose political endorsement by states signals a commitment to respond to humanitarian crises. However, it should be emphasized that this commitment is grounded in an ad-hoc fashion – there is no obligation to take action against humanitarian crises in every instance but rather the willingness to consider action on a case-by-case basis. This ambiguity, unfortunately for Syria, allows the international community to turn a blind eye to atrocities occurring if it does not deem intervention necessary based on its subjective determination of the situation on the ground.

Upon outbreak of violence in Libya, the United Nations Security Council acted swiftly and decisively. Within days of reports of violent crackdown on protestors, the Council sent a warning to Gaddafi condemning the violence and calling on his government to “meet its responsibility to protect its population”. Ten days after the Day of Rage, the Council adopted Resolution 1970 which explicitly referred to the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, saying that the Gaddafi regime was not upholding its responsibility to protect its citizens by both inflicting serious harm on them and being unable to cease the violence, thus they would be subject to arms embargos, travel restrictions etc. As the violence continued to escalate, the Council passed Resolution 1973 which created the legal basis to allow for military intervention for civilian protection purposes. It is important to note that the Security Council was able to pass this resolution with 10 affirmative votes and abstentions from China, Russia, Brazil, India and Germany. The notable abstentions included China and Russia who were suspected to certainly veto any proposal for military action. Observers claim this abstention from voting was far from an implicit endorsement of Resolution 1973, thus their ensuing rejection of measures to take action in Syria come as no surprise[37].

In the immediate aftermath of the resolution’s adoption, the divides between the members of the Security Council on how to approach the crisis in Libya became evident as Russia and China both openly expressed misgivings about the language and spirit of the resolution. China stated it had “serious difficulty with parts of the resolution” preferred to resolve “the current crisis … through peaceful means”[38].  Russia complained that it had received no answers to its questions about “how the no-fly zone would be enforced, what the rules of engagement would be and what limits on the use of force there would be” and warned against “unilateral military intervention under the pretext of protecting civilians”[39].

Despite this opposition, law professor Andrew Garwood-Growers argues that three factors forced the hand of the United Nations Security Council to take action. First, there was a clear and immediate threat to the civilian population in Libya. This had been crystallized by Gaddafi’s own statements including him saying that “officers have been deployed in all tribes and regions so that they can “purify all decisions from these cockroaches” and “any Libyan who takes arms against Libya will be executed”[40]. Second, there was a regional consensus for the need for external intervention. Gaddafi was massively unpopular in the Arab world and the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization of the Islamic Conference all supported external military action and even explicitly called for the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya[41] – this made is especially easy for the Security Council to garner support to take action. Lastly, important defections from Gaddafi’s regime, including Libya’s Ambassador to the UN had called on the Security Council to take decisive action – thus placing further pressure on the international community. The combination of these events placed countries like Russia and China who opposed military action in a difficult position for fear of damaging their international reputation and thus these states “abstained because they believed that they could not legitimize inaction in the face of mass atrocities”[42]. The military intervention in Libya represented an unusual moment in history where strategic interests collided with humanitarian needs to allow the Security Council to take action as quickly as it did.   

In comparison to Libya, the Security Council certainly failed to quickly and decisively stem the violence in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Despite three attempts by the Security Council to pass even modest resolutions proposing non-forcible measures against the Assad regime, China and Russia vetoed these drafts every time. On October 4th, 2011 Russia and China vetoed a resolution condemning Assad’s government. The resolution would have threatened the Syrian government with targeted sanctions given continued military actions against protestors[43]. The second veto came on February 4th, 2012 which would have allowed UN military action in Syria to protect its citizens[44] and the final veto came in on July 19th, 2012 on a resolution that would’ve threatened to place economic sanctions on Syria for refusing to follow the terms of a peace plan the international community had endorsed in Geneva[45]. For international observers, the optimism surrounding the UNSC’s willingness to exercise its R2P powers to prevent civilian atrocities post-Libya seemed misplaced and naïve. These disagreements within the Security Council were grounded in how the two sides interpreted the situation on the ground. Instead of viewing the conflict in Syria as a repression of political protests for democratic reform, as it had in Libya, Russia and China viewed the violence as a “legitimate government response to attacks on state infrastructure by armed opposition groups”[46] and thus they saw the invocation of the R2P doctrine as unnecessary. However as the violence wore on and reports of torture and chemical weapons use surface, it is hard to believe that Russia and China continued to believe that Assad’s response to the opposition groups was in anyway legitimate or justified. Diplomats have tried to make sense of Russia and China’s seemingly night and day approaches to Libya and Syria given their tacit approval to take some sort of action in Libya versus rejecting resolutions simply condemning the Assad government. 

First, it is suspected that the failure to achieve political consensus from Russia and China may have been a form of blow-back against the way events had transpired in Libya with what Russia saw as abuses of military power when intervening in Libya. According to one Russian author, the “way the R2P and the UNSC mandate were abused during the Libyan operation has taught Russia and many other states a lesson, which they will not forget easily”[47]. Russia had always been opposed to regime change in Libya and saw the implementation of Resolution 1973 merely as an excuse for removing the Gaddafi regime – exactly what it feared Western powers would do when the R2P doctrine was first proposed. Secondly, the strategic and geopolitical factors surrounding intervention in Syria vis-a-vis its relationship with members of the Security Council were certainly more complicated than those in Libya – a reality this paper asserts is the central factor in preventing the UNSC from taking any action. But lastly, many observers found Russia and China’s rejection of taking any action in Syria as consistent with their position in Libya. Neither country ever explicitly approved military action in Libya since they had abstained from the vote, opting rather to pursue dialogue and negotiation as a way to resolve the conflict. These sentiments had not changed upon the outbreak of civil war in Syria – both countries maintained that they wanted a diplomatic solution to the violence and this time were willing to put their foot down on military action which they believe was abused in Libya.

For Russia and China apologists, they view inaction as ultimately competing visions with the West over intervention and the international order. The two countries have historically always been suspicious of the West’s strategy of “muscular humanitarianism”[48] as a civilian protection strategy and suggest that the action taken in Libya was the result of a perfect storm of events rather than a concrete movement of world powers to agree on a universal set of civilian protection measures. The lesson from Syria is that international military intervention to humanitarian crises, like in Libya, is likely to remain the exception in international politics, the political paralysis surrounding international consensus in Syria is more likely to be the norm.



Hypotheses and Unit of Analysis

Syria’s close economic and military relationship with Russia prevented the international community from taking military action against Assad’s regime like it could against Gaddafi’s.

            This paper argues that Bashar al-Assad’s relationship with Vladimir Putin acted as the principle barrier to any international action being taken to intervene in Syria. Rather than being based on principle for opposing humanitarian intervention or acting in retaliation for military action in Libya, this paper suspects that above all Russia had too much at stake in its economic and military relationship with Syria to risk upsetting and was able to stymie international discussion as a result. While China also vetoed UN action in Syria, Russia’s role was far more crucial in preventing action. China lacked the diplomatic clout to unilaterally oppose international action and recognized that without “the buffer and political protection provided by Russia, it would not be able to pursue a relatively ‘independent’ foreign policy or withstand pressure from US”[49].

            This paper presents an alternative hypothesis for why action was not taken Syria.

The United States and world powers preferred the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria over an unknown successor, possibly backed by a terrorist organization.  

The resistance to taking action in Syria may not have just been based in the inability to get the full support of the UN Security Council, but rather the fear of a vacuous Syria that would be overtaken by an even more brutal regime. An imperfect Assad regime may be preferable to a much more imperfect Hezbollah or Hamas controlled regime in Syria.

Variables and Operationalization of Concepts

The dependent variable (explanadum) is the degree of international intervention in both Libya and Syria

Intervention – Application of military, diplomatic or economic pressure from an external power(s) to initiate a change in behavior in the host nation

The independent variables (explanans) are the international alliances of Libya and Syria and the international community’s confidence in a replacement regime to overtake the host government

Alliances – the relationship between two or more states establishing a mutually understood security, trade or diplomatic arrangement with each other.

Confidence in replacement regime – do the organizations that seek the overthrow the host government have affiliations with terrorist organizations/anti-Western agendas?  Did these organizations use similar tactics (chemical weapons, torture, and execution) as the regime they were attempting to replace?

The basis for the first variable is explained in the previous section, but what would be considered a worse regime needs to be defined. A “worse regime” is likely one that had close connections with a terrorist organization and/or committed war/humanitarian crimes as part of its revolutionary agenda. Strong affiliation with a terrorist group like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, or Hezbollah likely entails a fundamentalist Islamist philosophy towards governance. Based on the Taliban rule in Pakistan and implementation of forms of sharia law in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Indonesia it has resulted in subjugation of women, child marriage, violence against individuals of different faiths, persecution of the LGBT community, restriction on education etc.  While it could be argued that many of these acts were already occurring in Assad’s regime at the margins, it certainly was not institutionalized in the law like it would be if a regime backed by one of these groups came to power. More so, this regime would openly oppose Western powers and would likely ramp up terrorist plots and missions against Western troops and attacks on our soil or our allies.

The addendum to what’s considered a “worse regime”, if they had committed war crimes as part of the fight for freedom, is meant to act as a litmus test for how this group would treat its own citizens if there were further domestic unrest after the inception of its rule. If this rebel group had also been using chemical weapons against the opposition and/or civilians or had carried out torture campaigns at prison sites etc, I believe it would not be any more fit to rule over the population it was attempting to liberate. If people began to call for regime change again, it is likely these same tactics would be used on demonstrators as they had been used previously. 

Casual Mechanism

            It’s difficult to establish definitive causality with the variables being explored here since they are qualitative in nature, but despite that we can still look into official statements from UN and Russian diplomats to determine how all of these various factors played out during the debates to consider intervention. We can establish causality as opposed to correlation effects for our variables by observing the timeline of bilateral relations between Syria and Russia in the months leading up to the outbreak of civil war and as the violence carried on in relation to when the United Nations began to try and initiate action against the Assad regime. If we can establish a pattern between defense or energy trades between Russia and Syria or platforms/policies they mutually support in multilateral regimes it is possible that the two are tied together – rather their alliance that intertwines their security interests and their economies strongly influenced Russia’s decision to veto any Security Council Resolution.


            First, I will try and disprove the alternative hypothesis that the fear of a worse regime overtaking al-Assad’s acted as deterrent to international action in Syria.  To determine if this is true, it’s important to ask if the Security Council expressed the same concerns before moving to topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya. After the Day of Rage in Libya, the National Transitional Council (NTC) had been formed and was poised to act as the de facto government – calling itself the “only legitimate body representing the people of Libya and the Libyan state”[50]. The leadership of the NTC was primarily made up of defectors from Gaddafi’s regime, even including some of the Free Officers who led the original coup in 1969 putting Gaddafi in power but also included educated elite like Libya’s premier lawyers and university professors[51].

Reports began emerging as the revolution raged on that members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group officially listed as a terrorist organization by Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, retained positions of power in the NTC[52]. Even more so, Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, a prominent member of Al-Qaeda assumed a senior position in the NTC[53]. This reality, however, did little to change the international community’s stance on intervening in Libya. When asked whether there are men inside the NTC that are affiliated with terrorist groups, a senior US defense official admitted, “Yeah, probably”[54]. Though it seemed abundantly clear that the regime that was poised to take over Muammar Gaddafi had explicit connections with terrorist organizations, it did not deter the international community from moving to remove Gaddafi. Drawing from this, it seems unlikely that members of the UN Security Council like Russia and China could credibly argue that their reservations about removing Assad drew from their fear that a terrorist backed regime would assume power.

            The Free Syrian Army had an even more troubled history with terrorist organizations with reports that it was explicitly cooperating with Al-Qaeda affiliates and was being armed by them[55] In spite of this the United States passed domestic legislation to begin moderately arming and supporting the FSA to topple Assad[56]. Russia and China had a different set of fears regarding the Free Syrian Army overtaking Assad’s government. According to Rajan Menon, a political science professor at CUNY, Russia in particular was worried not about an even more repressive Islamist regime taking over but that that regime would not maintain the economic relationship that it currently had with the Assad government[57]. The importance of Syria and Russia’s economic relationship was highlighted when Russian diplomats began saying that it was not married to keeping in Assad in power, but in keeping Syria stable[58]. Thus it became clear that Russia saw Assad as disposable, but saw him as their best bet to maintain their strategic interests in the region. Their interpretation of a “worse regime” was vastly different than the one this paper takes, while the new regime may have been worse for the people of Syria, Russia was more concerned about whether the new regime would be worse for them.  This leads into the crux of this paper – understanding the relationship between Russia and Syria and how that manifested itself in preventing international action in their civil war.

            The bilateral relationship between Syria and Russia dates back to 1946 before the declaration of an independent Syrian state from French rule where the USSR and Syria signed a secret agreement where the USSR agreed to help Syria in its formation of a national army[59]. This relationship was cemented in 1950 upon signing a non-aggression pact with Syria and quickly aided them during the Suez Crisis[60]. Since the signing of the non-aggression pact, Syria has considered Russia the “main source” of its political and military support in the region[61].

Russia’s relationship with the al-Assad family dates back 4 decades to Hafeez al-Assad. It was Hafeez who negotiated Syria’s first large trade agreement with Russia with a $2 billion arms deal in 1999[62]. Since that agreement, Russia has become the largest arms dealer to Syria. Their military relationship preceded this agreement as the Soviet Union had built a naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus in 1971 and has continually expanded it to increase Russia’s size and presence in Mediterranean waters. More so the Assad family has sent thousands of Syrian officers and military generals to study in Russia, resulting in marriages and mixed families that have tied the two countries together[63]. However, the modern Russia-Syria relationship is far from limited to military transfers – Russian industries have a substantial presence in Syria’s infrastructure, agriculture, telecommunications and above all energy. In 2010, Russian energy giants established a stronghold in the Syrian market. Russian natural gas company Stroitransgaz has begun working on Syria’s largest natural gas processing plant and is also involved in technical support for the construction of the Arab Gas Pipeline across the Middle East. Another Russian energy firm Taftnet began a partnership with the state owned Syrian Petroleum Company to pump Syrian oil and plans to spend over $12 million on exploring new wells.  As of 2010, Russia has an estimated value of $19.4 billion worth of investments in Syria, excluding a multitude of arms contracts worth almost $5 billion[64].

Based on this relationship alone, Russia’s hesitancy to approve military action to topple Syria’s standing government is unsurprising. Leading up to the violence, the inter-connectedness of the two economies grew exponentially – from 2007 to 2010 the value of Russian arms deals with Syria more than doubled from $2.1 billion to $4.7 billion[65]. At the onset of civil war breaking out in Syria, there were calls for Russia to cease its arm sales to the Assad government and its support for the regime. After refusal to do so, claiming to honor these business contracts, a senior Russian official remarked that Russia had lost $4 billion in Libyan arms and other contracts following the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime and thus with the “prospect of losing an equal amount in potential Syrian trade, Moscow has no other choice but to take a hard line” [66]. Rajan Menon notes that the overseas arms contracts are very important people to the Russians themselves. He argues that, “there have been significant cuts in the size of the Russian military budget relative to the Soviet period, so if you want to keep people employed in the military-industrial complex, you need exports of armaments.[67] The timing of these losses would be critical as Sarah Michaels, the chief Russia analyst at Oxford Analytic, points out that with Russia’s presidential election looming and factory workers’ votes up for grabs, Putin sees these arms sales as crucial to maintaining his reign[68]. The potential economic losses of an Assad collapse go far beyond arm sales and Russia knows this. According to Daniel Treisman, a Russia specialist at UCLA, the Kremlin is acutely aware that $20 billion in Russian industry investments in Syria are at stake and has made promises to these companies that their contracts would be honored[69], in a post-Assad state can it be sure they will? We can contrast this economic relationship with the one Russia had with Libya. While Gaddafi and Putin shared a close relationship due to their mutual opposition to Western policies, Russian industries never broke ground in Libya. Russian gas giant Gazprom had tried on multiple occasions to establish itself in North Africa, but Libyan oil companies refused to grant them access. Gazprom referred to Libya as a “closed market” and these entry barriers have acted as deterrents to other Russian industries interested in Libya[70] While Russia was able to secure lucrative arms contracts with Libya as it had with Syria, it could not do more. If it is true that one of Russia’s primary reasons for preventing international action is maintaining its economic relationships, then it clearly did not see its value in Libya to a sufficient degree to use its veto power in the UN Security Council.  

Even more at stake for Russia to support the Assad regime is its strategic foothold in its access to the Mediterranean. As mentioned above, Russia’s Tartus naval base in Syria is its only connection to this vital body of water and Assad’s fall would mean losing it. Numerous Russian officials and Putin himself have declared the base, and Syria, as critical to Moscow’s security strategy, with one even calling the country Russia’s “last foothold in the Middle East”[71] – something they explicitly never said about Libya. A month before vetoing the second UN resolution to take action in Syria, the Russian Defense Ministry announced upcoming naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, which Russian officials described as “the biggest in Russian history” [72] This move was coupled with plans to expand its existing facilities at Tartus to be able to dock nuclear submarines so it can accommodate the Russian Navy’s flagship — the “Admiral Kuznetsov” aircraft carrier after 2012. While Russia did not give any indications that the exercises were related to the Syrian conflict, US analysts and Russian observers noted that the timing of the exercises and base expansion plans is a strong indication that Russia does not intend to back out of its support for Assad’s regime because it fears that an opposition government replacing Assad would likely try to strip away Russia’s rights to use Tartus[73].

Conclusions and Implications

            International politics is messy. As with any conflict, every country has different agendas, fears and goals. The Arab Spring will remain as a series of events that continually challenged world powers to understand their own global interests and its intersection with support for democracy and free protest.  Ultimately, Russia and China choosing to ignore and even perpetuate human rights violations in Syria, or anywhere for that matter, is not breaking news. What is interesting however is its willingness to do something (or not stop others) in Libya but virtually do the opposite in Syria. Libya and Syria share a virtually identical history as nations borne out of military coups, regimes establishing order through repression and dispelling calls for democratic reform through violence and inhumane tactics. This paper explores the tension in how the international community responded to these two different crises and unveiled a host of economic and military interconnections with Russia and Syria, connections that it did not have as strongly with Libya, thus establishing a causal relationship to its vetoing of any international military action to replace Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The majority of the international community sees a regime torturing its citizens, using chemical weapons on its people and refusing to allow for democratic reform in Syria, but Russia sees a very different picture. Putin’s global interests do not align with the international community here – it sees billions of dollars in investments and arms contracts and a strategic naval base at stake if it were to support the collapse of Assad’s regime. Veto power in the UN Security council is capable of shaping how the entire international community is able to act/not act in the face of any crisis/conflict. By understanding the motivations behind Russia’s refusal to take action in the humanitarian crises in Syria, we can now have a better understanding of how the international community will react the next time events like this occur. If this case study of Russia’s reaction to the Syrian Civil War of 2011 is any indication, it is likely that self-interest will dictate future action rather than humanitarian purposes.

Works Cited

[1] Viscus, Gregory. “Qaddafi Is No Mubarak as Regime Overthrow May Trigger a ‘Descent to Chaos'”. Bloomberg L.P, 23 February 2011,

[2] Bazzi, Mohamad (27 May 2011). “What Did Qaddafi’s Green Book Really Say?”. The New York Times, 28 October 2011,

[3] Ibid. 2

[4] Ibid. 2   

[5] Ibid. 2

[6] Blundy & Lycett 1987, p. 31; Vandewalle 2008, p. 23; Kawczynski 2011, p. 104; Bruce St. John 2012, p. 192

[7] Ibid. 6

[8] Asser, Martin. “The Muammar Gaddafi story”,, 21 October 2011

[9] “Three Scenarios for End of Gaddafi: Psychologist”. Al Arabiya. 26 February 2011.

[10] Meo, Nick, “Libya protests: 140 ‘massacred’ as Gaddafi sends in snipers to crush dissent”. The Daily Telegraph (UK). Retrieved 6 June 2011.

[11] Ibid. 11

[12] Ibid. 11

[13] Ibid. 11

[14] “Security Council authorizes ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians in Libya”. United Nations News Centre. 17 March 2011.

[15] Batty, David. “Military Action Begins Against Libya”. The Guardian. 19 March 2011.

[16] Erdbrink, Thomas and Sly, Liz. “Battle for Tripoli not yet over as Gaddafi loyalists strike back” 22 August 2011.

[17] Libyan Crackdown ‘Escalates’ – UN”. BBC News. February 25, 2011.

[18] “Syria Profile”. BBC. 13 September 2013. 13 September 2013.

[19] Ibid. 19

[20] Ibid. 19

[21] “Syria Kurd leader vows to keep up democracy struggle”. Reuters. 7 April 2011

[22]Almond, Kyle. “Syria explained: What you need to know”, 24 August 2012.

[23] Ibid. 23

[24] Ibid. 23

[25] Ibid. 23

[26] “World Report 2010 Human Rights Watch World Report 2010”, p. 555.

[27] Ibid. 27

[28] “UN chief slams Syria’s crackdown on protests”. Al Jazeera. 18 March 2011.

[29] “UN calls for Syria probe as hundreds protest”. Al Jazeera. 22 March 2011.

[30] “China and Russia veto UN resolution condemning Syria”. BBC. 5 October 2011

[31] “Security Council Requires Scheduled Destruction of Syria’s Chemical Weapons, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2118”. Retrieved 2013-09-29.

[32] Photos from Syria Allegedly Show Torture, Systematic Killing, Newsweek,



[34] Ibid. 33

[35] Ibid. 33

[36] Ibid. 33

[37] Ibid. 33

[38] Cronogue, Graham. “Responsibility to Protect: Syria The Law, Politics, and Future of Humanitarian Intervention Post-Libya”, International Humanitarian Legat Studies 3 {2012) 124-159

[39] Ibid. 38

[40] Ibid. 38

[41] Morris, Justin. “Libya and Syria: R2P and the spectre of the swinging pendulum”, International Affairs 89: 5 (2013) 1265–1283

[42] Ibid. 41

[43] Brown, Hayes. “FLASHBACK: How Russia Has Blocked International Action On Syria”, 9 September 13

[44] Ibid. 43

[45] Ibid. 43

[46] Ibid. 38

[47] Ibid 41

[48] Ibid. 34

[49] Chang, Jennifer. “China’s Evolving Stance on Syria”. 18 February 2013.

[50] “Ferocious Battles in Libya as National Council Meets for First Time”. NewsCore 6 March 2011

[51] Power, Susan. “The role of the National Transitional Council in the Economic

Reconstruction of Libya – Some Legal Challenges”, 2012.

[52] Ibid. 51

[53] “Libya: The New Al-Qaeda Stronghold”, 18 January 2912.

[54] Lawrence, Chris. “Libya the  new terrorist haven”. 14 September 2011,

[55]McCarthy, Andrew. “The Free Syrian Army, Our ‘Moderate Islamist’ Ally, Continues to Ally with Al-Qaeda in Syria”

[56] “U.S. Congress approves arming Syrian rebels, funding government”,

[57] Menon, Raj. “A Syrian Standoff”, July 12th, 2012.

[58]Lipson, Joshua. “’Russia concerned with stability, not keeping Assad’”

[59] Kreutz, Andrej (2007). Russia in the Middle East: friend or foe?. Westport

[60] Ibid. 59

[61] Ibid. 59

[62] Ibid. 59

[63] Peel, Michael; Clover, Charles (9 July 2012). “Syria and Russia’s ‘special relationship'”. Retrieved 11 July 2012.

[64] Herszenhorn, David. “For Syria, Reliant on Russia for Weapons and Food, Old Bonds Run Deep”, 18 February 2012.

[65] Ibid. 64

[66] Trenin, David. “Why Russia Supports Assad”, 9 February 2012

[67]O’Toole, James. “Billions at stake as Russia backs Syria”, 10 February 2012

[68] Ibid. 67

[69] Ibid. 67

[70] Katz, Mark. “The Russian-Libyan Rapprochment: What has Moscow Gained”,

[71] Ibid. 67

[72] “Russia’s Many Interests in Syria” 13 January 2013.

[73] Synovitz, Ron. “Why Is Access To Syria’s Port At Tartus So Important To Moscow?” 19 June 2012

Foreign Policy Short Form

The Failure of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a toothless tiger – a seemingly stringent regime against nuclear weapons but without any real enforcement capacity. The three stated goals of the NPT are as follows: preventing non-nuclear weapons states from acquiring nuclear weapons, disallowing nuclear weapons states from assisting non-nuclear weapons states in acquiring nuclear weapons and moving towards disarmament, and finally granting access to civilian nuclear technology to non-nuclear weapons states. Not only has the NPT failed to accomplish any of these goals but in its current form may be counterproductive in reaching them – its dissolution and replacement with a more modern and enforceable treaty is preferable.

            First, the NPT has been unable to prevent non-nuclear weapon states from acquiring the bomb. Nations that have developed nuclear capabilities since the NPT’s inception in 1968 have simply not signed the treaty or withdrawn from it. India first tested its weapon in 1974, Israel is suspected to have developed weapons in the late 60s and Pakistan formally tested their weapons in 1998 – none of the three were signatories to the NPT and to this day are not. North Korea simply withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and proceeded to develop nuclear weapons. Rather than deterring countries from pursuing nuclear capabilities, the NPT has alienated non-nuclear weapons states and subject them to arbitrary oversight from nuclear countries. This tension was in part the reason India not only refused to sign the NPT, but developed weapons as a result. During a visit to Tokyo in 2007, India’s External Affairs Minister Mukherjee said of the NPT that it “created a club of ‘nuclear haves’ and ‘nuclear have-nots’…and is a flawed treaty which did not recognize the need for universal, non-discriminatory verification and treatment” (Times of India). India’s refusal to accede to the NPT did not impede its ability to access civilian nuclear technology however. In 2005, India signed a 123 Agreement with the United States to achieve full nuclear energy cooperation (Kerr). The US Congress allowed the President to waive provisions of the Atomic Energy Act which prevented the direct export of civilian nuclear technology to non-NPT states (Kerr). Thus the NPT has also failed in preventing non-member and non-nuclear weapon states from garnering access to civilian technology.

            Second, the NPT has not been able to push nuclear-weapon states to total disarmament or even come close. The five legally recognized nuclear states – United States, Russia, China, France and UK – are either currently deploying nuclear weapons systems or plan to do so (World Nuclear Forces). Instead of the rate of disarmament increasing over time, it has actually been decreasing. In the last five years, the US arsenal has only decreased by 309 warheads as compared to a decrease of 3,287 warheads in the five years before that (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists). Russia has similarly retired only about 1,000 warheads in the past five years compared to 2,500 in the preceding five years. The UK has not disarmed any weapons since 2010, France since 2008 and China since 2004 (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists). As of 2014, almost 5 decades after the NPT went into effect; the nine nuclear armed states possess around 16,400 warheads – enough to arm every country on Earth with roughly the size of Israel’s arsenal (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists). The fault with the NPT in failing to reach its goal is clear – there is no binding mechanism in the treaty that can enforce disarmament.

            Rather than letting the status quo of failed nuclear control continue, it is time to replace the NPT with an NPT 2.0. This new NPT should have all treaty members bolster the IAEA’s scope and budget to allow for more thorough nuclear monitoring and set timetables for disarmament progress with legitimate punishments for failure to adhere. There should be firm penalties for violations in treaty commitments as well as withdrawal. Finally any state that tests a nuclear weapon be denied any form of nuclear trade. If the NPT is given some bite, it can be an effective tool in making the world a safer place.

Works Cited

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. “Slowing nuclear weapon reductions and endless nuclear weapon modernizations: A challenge to the NPT”, Jul2014, Vol. 70 Issue 4, p94-107. 14p. 2 Charts, 1 Graph

Kerr, Paul. “U.S. Nuclear Cooperation with India: Issues for Congress” Congressional Research Service, June 26, 2012,

The Times of India. “India dismisses NPT as ‘flawed’ treaty”, March 23rd, 2007,

World nuclear forces, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2013 Annual Yearbook,