Climate Change Long Form

Engineering vs. Ecosystems: Evaluating Climate Adaptation Approaches

This report sets out to answer the question – when it comes to climate adaptation, are engineering-based solutions (e.g., sea walls) more effective and economical than ecosystem-based approaches (e.g., coastal revegetation)?

I first look at the environmental drivers of adaptation, current international efforts, and dive into a case study of a town in the Fiji Islands that’s specifically wrestled with these competing approaches to adaptation.

The goal of this work is to help institutions like the U.N. Adaptation Fund and Green Climate Fund prioritize which adaptation approaches have been most successful to inform their financing decisions as the world has little time to plan for how they will brace for the inevitable environmental impacts of a 1.5 to 2C rise.

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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Climate Change Long Form

Do Renewable Portfolio Standards Work?

The Biden administration has pledged to achieve a 50-52% reduction from 2005 levels in nationwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030. As part of this goal, the administration has stated that they would like to see 100% of the nation’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2035 – up from roughly 20% right now.

The signature policy support mechanism for renewable energy in the U.S. has been state-wide renewable energy portfolio standards, hereby called RPS. The goal of an RPS is to increase the use of renewable energy in electricity generation by requiring electricity suppliers to provide consumers with a minimum share of electricity from eligible renewable resources (e.g. 20% of electricity generated needs to come from renewable sources).

The two states that generate the most renewable energy in the U.S. – Texas and California – have made an RPS a central part of their renewable energy policy strategy. However, the two states differ quite substantially in their implementation philosophies and supporting policies.

California has a much more hands on approach with increasingly ambitious RPS targets over the years with a plethora of diverse, and targeted statewide policies for specific renewables, while Texas has a more hands-off approach, setting a low renewable target and providing comparatively fewer state-wide incentives and regulations.

This paper seeks to explore the differences between Texas and California and assess changes in each state’s overall CO2 emissions from the electricity sector and generation of renewable energy since their RPS went into effect. The paper concludes with lessons learned and recommendations for how RPS policies can be improved nationally to ultimately achieve Biden’s goal of a carbon-free electricity system.

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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Climate Change Health Long Form Politics and Government

What Public Health Emergencies Can Teach Us About Climate Adaptation

We will be watching videos of life-threatening climate disasters every day on our phones until one day it’s our phone recording the next one.

Major environmental and health emergencies used to be rare, one-off occasions. Now being in a state of emergency is the new normal. Mega-hurricanes, massive floods, heat waves, inferno wildfires, even global pandemics, are now a regular part of our lives every year.

As the environment deteriorates, we will lurch from one emergency to another in a perpetual state of disaster response as the Earth becomes more and more uninhabitable every year. In order to survive humanity will have to both rely on and become our own emergency first responders.

Where we stand now is reason for pessimism. Even if we miraculously reduced all the world’s carbon emissions to zero by tomorrow we still couldn’t stop many of the environmental changes set in motion, only limit their worst effects. This is because more than 93% of the heat humans have generated is trapped in the oceans and atmosphere where it will linger for centuries.

The time for arguing about who is to blame is over. Now it’s time to figure out what happens when it’s our homes that are flooded, AC systems overwhelmed, or an even deadlier pandemic comes along.

For a few years I worked in the world of emergency response at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). I witnessed the response to the Zika virus in the Americas, the Ebola virus in the Congo, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and most recently the COVID vaccine distribution.

In each of these emergencies, I’ve learned something new about how these shocks are handled by some of the largest public and private institutions tasked with responding. It’s this same networks of health partners and first responders who will be called upon week after week when the next disaster strikes.

This article/personal reflection is for anyone who is interested in learning more about the world of emergency response and wants tangible solutions to advocate for with their friends, family, and public officials to better prepare for humanity’s fight to survive climate change.

Lessons Learned

1. 2020 COVID – Computers call the shots.
2. 2019 Ebola – Assume people won’t listen to you.
3. 2017 Hurricane Maria – The money is there, if you know where to look.
4. 2016 Zika – Sometimes you have to make it up as you go.

Lesson #1 – Computers call the shots.

In November 2020, the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines neared the finish line for FDA emergency use authorization. In preparation for nationwide distribution, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services formed a partnership with retail pharmacy chains to administer the vaccine. Drugstores like CVS, Walgreens, and Rite-Aid were to be the frontlines of the largest vaccination campaign in human history.

It was a simple and common-sense partnership. The federal government wanted to get the widest reach possible with the lowest effort. More than a third of Americans get their annual flu shot at a pharmacy and more than 80% of Americans live within 10 miles of a CVS or other community pharmacy.

For the pharmacies, the vaccine was to be provided at no cost to them and to be administered at no cost to the recipients. The pharmacies would benefit from increased traffic in their stores as well as positive PR on their vaccination efforts.

Pharmacies like CVS formed a partnership with the federal government to distribute the COVID vaccines but faced a complex data reporting environment that delayed the roll out.

In order to become an approved pharmacy to receive the COVID vaccine they had a few rules they had to follow, namely how they would share data with the CDC on their vaccination efforts.

Every 24 hours, pharmacies had to submit data on things like how many people they vaccinated, the number of doses they ordered, and how many doses they had on hand in their inventory. This information would be fed into a larger system called Tiberius managed by Operation Warp Speed. In Tiberius, the federal government would allocate the scarce doses of the vaccine to each state based on demographics, demand, and availability.

This process working well had a lot riding on it. In December, the U.S. was in the midst of its deadliest month of the pandemic with the alpha variant from the U.K. rampantly hospitalizing and killing thousands of people every day.

Unfortunately, within the first few weeks of the vaccine rollout the wheels started to come off the track. States began complaining that the actual amount of vaccines they were allocated were far less than what they expected, in some cases more than 40% less. As a result, pharmacies and other vaccination sites in those states had to start cancelling thousands of appointments.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee announcing the unexpected cut to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine allocation.

Our team in the CDC Vaccine Task Force was working with the pharmacies and needed to explain to them what was going on. This led us to wrapping our minds around the messy process that COVID data was coming into and out of the CDC.

The culprit was a faulty data synchronization between the CDC’s vaccine ordering system, VTrcks, and the allocation system Tiberius.

While vaccination providers were planning appointments based on what they ordered, it wasn’t until that information matched up with Tiberius that the right number of doses would arrive at their facility. The issue was diagnosed and fixed, but it held up vaccine distribution at a critical time.

USAToday did their best here.

Technology hurdles like this were one of many early missteps that were not only responsible for the U.S. ending 2020 nearly 18 million vaccinations behind schedule, but also resulted in failures to quickly identify hotspots and prevent outbreaks early in the pandemic.

The lesson is despite the best laid plans of mice and men, sometimes it’s the computers that are calling the shots. Literally. More than people agreeing on what needs to be done the harder work is ensuring that the information systems behind the scenes are also in agreement on what needs to be done. Getting the I.T. piece right can be in the biggest determinant on whether life-saving care can be administered in a timely way.

This is the largest and most important vaccine program that we have ever undertaken. We would have liked to have seen it run smoothly and have 20 million doses into people today, which was the projection. Obviously, it didn’t happen.

Dr. Anthony Fauci on the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, December 31st, 2020

Things to advocate for:

Investing in standardized application programming interfaces (APIs) across healthcare and emergency response systems.

The two biggest challenges facing interoperability in our healthcare system today are data usability and public health data exchange delays. Health data right now are not readily available in a format that can be easily ingested and incorporated by different healthcare providers and public health systems.

More work and investment is needed in adopting the HHS Standardized application programming interface (API) for patient and population services across hospitals, laboratories, first responders, and meteorological services to make it easier for disparate systems to share information quickly in an emergency.

For years the fragmented U.S. healthcare system had struggled to become interoperable, digital, and accessible to patients when they need it most.
Development of a standardized “health passport” for individuals to manage, control, and protect their health data.

Do you know what you would do if you lost your paper vaccine card? Depending on where you live the process can be shockingly complicated to get physical or electronic proof of vaccination from your state immunization registry.

Imagine now that an immunocompromised person is brought to a large stadium for shelter after having their basement home flooded. One of more than 150 million people that will become climate refugees in the next 30 years. How will they attest to their exact prescriptions, vitals, and medical history with all their documentation under water?

Equipping individuals to have sovereignty over their own health information has been a challenge for years despite having the technology to do it in a way that protects privacy and ensures portability. Investing in a solution now that leverages advances in distributed data storage and biometrics will vastly improve healthcare in a rapid response setting.

Take Away
There will be no successful response to climate change without relying on technology. When it comes to quickly identifying and triaging an emergency situation our I.T. infrastructure needs to be nimble, portable, and interconnected – COVID has proved that it’s not there yet.

Lesson #2 – Assume people won’t listen to you.

The Ebola virus flared back up in the Congo in 2019 prompting the WHO and CDC to rush medical personnel to contain the outbreak. They feared a repeat of the 2014 outbreak that spread across West Africa, then the largest Ebola outbreak in history.

As medical staff arrived and began treating and isolating patients, they faced a series of attacks by the hardest hit communities. People began throwing stones at doctors and burning down medical facilities. One day, two gunmen barged into a medical staff meeting and opened fire.

At the time, our team at the CDC’s Division of Emergency Operations was developing resource plans for the Ebola response. The deployments of CDC health workers being processed had to be immediately cancelled until the stronger security arrangements could be made. In total, there were 386 attacks against Ebola first responders in the Congo.

Ebola Crisis In DRC Declared A Public Health Emergency
Ebola medical workers in the Congo faced skepticism and violence from those who didn’t believe the threat of the virus was real.

When asked why they were hostile to the medical workers, many responded by accusing the health workers of making up Ebola as a ruse to make money off the population. Some declared that it was a hoax perpetrated by the government to drum up foreign aid, cancel local elections and takeaway their rights. Religious officials and politicians stoked these fears.

Ebola doesn’t exist! You’ve invented the disease.

Gunman who fired on Ebola workers in the Congo

The skepticism and misinformation about Ebola bears obvious resemblance to COVID-19. Whether it was downplaying the threat of the virus, politicizing masks, watering down CDC recommendations, or letting unfounded fears of the vaccine abound, there was no shortage of conspiracies that undermined public health messaging.

The misinformation around COVID has similarly led to violence against healthcare workers and government officials. Most famously, the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Witmer in retaliation for strict lockdown orders. Globally, hundreds of healthcare workers and contact tracers in the last year have been threatened and attacked.

This underlies a more fundamental issue with health emergencies, including climate change – successfully communicating science remains one of the most pressing challenges to overcome.

This protest against stay-at-home orders in San Diego, California like dozens around the country represent the significant communication hurdles that remain for public health emergencies.

Many times, we assume that the compelling nature of scientific assessments – especially ones that are apparent right in front of our eyes – are sufficient to spur action.

It’s smarter to assume that there will always be some countervailing political, social, or economic force which will turn the public against you, even though you are trying to help them. The imperative must be on health authorities to be proactive rather than reactive and drive the message through diverse, independent, and non-partisan channels.

Ideas to advocate for:

Partner with singers, athletes, actors, and social media influencers across the political spectrum in unified messaging campaigns.

Celebrities have a tremendous influence on the information we retain, the attitudes we adopt, and the decisions we make, including those related to our health. This is a known fact, otherwise companies wouldn’t be paying them millions of dollars to be brand ambassadors. There is already evidence that celebrities have influenced our perceptions of climate change and have driven participation in climate activism.

Leonardo DiCaprio Takes on Climate-Change Skeptics in U.N. Speech
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio speaks at the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014

In a health emergency, celebrity messages can be “especially important if trust in government/official sources is quite low,” according to Tracy Epton, a psychologist at the University of Manchester in Britain. Indeed, despite weeks of CDC warnings about the impending arrival of COVID early in 2020, the first real wakeup call for the public was when actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson tested positive.

“Public health figures who have credibility must partner with social media influencers who have the reach. Harnessing the wide reach of local, regional and national influencers from a wide swath of sectors both within and outside of the public health community is necessary to counter the large volume of misinformation thrust into the information ecosystem.”

Dr. Amir Bagherpour and Dr. Ali Nouri – Fellow and President of the Federation of American Scientists

Response authorities should set standards on what constitutes false or misleading information in real-time, especially during a declared public health or disaster emergency.

There has been no greater driver of misinformation about scientific information than from social media. What many have called an “infodemic“, a deluge of fake news about the virus circulates on platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and YouTube at a dizzying velocity.

These companies are reactive rather than proactive and slow to flag or remove content before thousands have already seen them. Last April, 59% of posts about COVID rated as false by fact-checkers remained up on Twitter. On YouTube, 27% remained up and on Facebook 24% of false-rated content remained up without warning labels.

There is a strong association between the use of WhatsApp and Facebook and believing COVID misinformation.

September 2020 joint study from Harvard, Northwestern, Rutgers and Northeastern universities on COVID misinformation

Disaster response officials must form stronger partnerships with social media companies to identify common sources of misinformation and enable speedy removal. With the poor track record of tech companies being able to self-regulate, response authorities may need the power to remove content in real-time, especially at the early stages of an emergency.

How to Block Social Media Apps From Yourself
Misinformation on social media has been one of the principle forces derailing key public health messages on COVID.
Learn from the advertising industry on how to identify, engage, and influence the behavior of your target audience.

The ad industry is incredibly powerful because of its ability to understand the preferences of its audience and use them to subtly influence, even manipulate people into taking a desired decision. Credit their innovative use of behavioral economics, marketing analytics, and empowered creative departments.

While public health mass media campaigns have worked successfully on issues like reducing smoking, there is clearly much to be learned in terms of how to change individual behavior in the context of a health emergency. Recruiting from and partnering with the top advertising and public relations firms could provide some fresh thinking and new tools on better ways to win over the audience and nudge the public to prepare more proactively for climate change.

Take Away
Misinformation and conspiracies derail every public health emergency – science can’t be expected to be listened to on its own merits. For scientific guidance to be communicated more effectively there needs to be a re-thinking on the public faces of an emergency, the tactics to remove false information online, and how best to target and influence the average citizen.

Lesson #3 – The money is there, if you know where to look.

On September 20th, 2017, a high-end Category 4 hurricane slammed into Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria flattened entire neighborhoods causing unprecedented damage to structures, roads, the power grid, and healthcare facilities. The entire population of 3.7 million people was left without electricity overnight.

More than 100,000 Puerto Ricans did not have clean food, water, or reliable electricity for more than 6 months. It is considered the worst natural disaster in history to hit the island.

Three consecutive mega-hurricanes approach the U.S. in 2017 tearing through the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and the southern U.S.

The response from the U.S. government was haphazard to say the least. Part of the reason was that this was the third consecutive mega-hurricane to hit the U.S. in a stretch of a few weeks: Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and now Maria. This precarious situation left FEMA, CDC, and other emergency response agencies even more strapped for resources.

The Trump administration was not only slow to take the crisis in Puerto Rico as seriously as the recovery efforts in Florida and Texas, but badly bungled the logistics and operations of getting relief to the island. This even prompted a personal feud between Trump himself and the mayor of San Juan.

Ultimately, Puerto Rico received 1/9th of the emergency meals, half the amount of water supplies, and 1/20th of the tarps provided during the responses to Harvey and Irma.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General found that FEMA “lost visibility” or failed to fully track nearly 40% of shipments to Puerto Rico with a value of nearly $257 million in meals, water, blankets and other supplies.

ABC News

It was in this environment that our team at the CDC’s Office of Financial Resources was tasked to find money, wherever it may exist within the agency, to help fund the public health emergency response operation in Puerto Rico.

One thing I quickly learned on this fiscal hunting trip is how much government money goes unused every year. When federal agencies don’t spend the funds Congress appropriates to them within a specific timeframe, the funds are “cancelled” and returned to the U.S. Treasury Department General Account (known as the TGA).

Once funds are cancelled, they are legally not allowed to be used for anything else. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, roughly $24 billion dollars in government-wide budget authority is cancelled every year – enough to pay for an annual universal pre-K program.

The reasons for canceling government appropriations can vary. Sometimes agencies just run out of time to implement a program. Many times, they simply don’t have the capacity to effectively find organizations, projects, or things to buy to use up their appropriated funds.

President Trump tosses paper towels to a crowd at a press conference in a Puerto Rican relief center

Before having to cancel appropriated funds, some agencies have authority to redirect this money for other purposes – this is a process known as “re-programming”.

One specific spending mechanism we looked into for the possibility of reprogramming was “unliquidated obligations”. Basically, the government agreed to set aside money to pay for some purpose (obligation) but ended up not incurring any expenses for that purpose.

After diving deeper into the numbers, we uncovered $6 billion in unliquidated obligations on the CDC’s accounting books. Money that could be re-programmed not just for the response in Puerto Rico, but several other public health operations.

Ideas to advocate for:

In a recent GAO study almost 70% of the agency officials interviewed reported that they ended up cancelling unused government funds because they could only be used for very specific purposes and did not have the legal authority to re-direct them to related/adjacent activities.

Rather than returning the money, agency officials need increased acquisition flexibilities, increases to warrant thresholds, new approving authorities, expansion to purchase card flexibilities, and the ability to use Inter-Departmental Delegation Authority (IDDA) and Inter-Agency Agreements (IAAs). These tools will give policymakers enhanced flexibility to respond to health emergencies in a forceful way.

Otherwise, agencies need to go through a process of review and congressional notification to take re-programming actions which can take several months. Because of the “use-it-or-lose-it” nature of these appropriations, a flurry of federal spending happens in the last week of the government fiscal year (last week of September) even if it results in lower quality projects or for issues that are not as urgent.

Federal agencies spend an average of 4.9 times more in the last week of their fiscal year than in a typical week during the rest of the year

National Bureau of Economic Research
Direct the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to target undisbursed balances by streamlining the project closeout process.

Nearly a fifth of all government spending (~$800B) goes to disbursing grants. The very first work project I worked on was helping manage the Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) grant throughout all its phases: pre-award, award, implementation, and closeout.

The closeout portion of a grant’s lifecycle is where a lot of the hidden money may lie. Closeout procedures are designed to ensure that the grantee has satisfied the terms of the grant and submitted all required financial and performance reports to the awarding agency. In this process, money that was given to a grantee but was never actually used is often discovered. That’s not always the case though.

In 2011, the GAO identified that the total amount of unused grant money can represent anywhere from 2.7% to a jaw-dropping 34.8% of an agency’s or program’s grant funding. More than $794 million in funding remaining in expired grant accounts for just one agency. Stronger action to improve systems and policies for reconciling payment accounts and monitoring grantee spending can be critical to maximizing available dollars to respond to emergencies.

Take Away
Disasters and emergencies are the last time you want to be getting thrifty. Rather than asking “how are you going to pay for it?” realize that we probably have already paid for it! Millions of dollars are sitting in unused or expired accounts or are being returned to the government because of lack of capacity and poor management. Granting increased flexibility to use government funds and rooting out idling money during a project’s “closeout” phase can refill coffers when responding to multiple, concurrent emergencies.

Lesson #4 – Sometimes you’re going to make it up as you go.

As the Zika virus began to spread across the Western Hemisphere in 2016 there was a scramble for reproductive health experts. Pregnant women infected with Zika were having babies born with deformed brains – a condition so terminal that women in South America were encouraged to postpone pregnancy for almost a year.

The CDC’s National Center of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities was called up to lead the emergency response at the agency. Unfortunately, most of the experts from the Center had no previous emergency response experience.

Early on epidemiologists were being asked to design communications flyers. Clinicians had figure out how to finance a laboratory task force. Unsurprisingly, things were delayed getting out the door to the populations that needed them most.

Zika was inducing a birth defect known as microcephaly – where a baby’s brain would not be fully developed – a condition with no known cure.

Staffing during an emergency response requires careful planning and tracking. But more often than not, at the beginning of a crisis an ad-hoc team of subject matter experts and support staff are pulled together, some of whom who may have never been trained for the unique environment of emergencies.

Because of the speed and voluntary nature of recruitment, skill sets are often misaligned or altogether missing for the precise needs of the response. This results in those on the frontline having to learn on the job at a time when inefficiencies and mistakes can have lethal consequences.

Ideas to advocate for:

Predict your needed workforce rather than reacting.

The U.S. has been in enough emergencies to know roughly what to expect whether it’s a domestic natural disaster or international pandemic response. By mining data from previous responses on information like: the number of people deployed, the roles needed, length of deployment, etc. agencies can create a predictive workforce based on specific emergency scenarios. This approach would not only enable more rapid identification of the right people when standing up a response but getting ahead of training those who have not been in a response before but have a frequently needed skillset.

Create a public health reserve – a gig workforce of dedicated emergency responders.

Disaster response agencies could develop a roster of response alumni and on-call workers that can be rapidly deployed without having to pull staff from other departments. This public health reserve would be similar to a “bench” in the management consulting industry but filled with government employees and volunteer citizens whose main role is to be emergency response specialists.

Versions of this exist currently in different cities known as a Medical Reserve Corp (MRC). MRCs were crucial in recruiting citizen volunteers to assist in COVID vaccination efforts. I was able to join the Fulton County MRC in Atlanta and assist in the logistics at Mercedes-Benz stadium (and luckily got my first dose out of it).

Exercise-based training for preparing laboratory samples for staff who have not been part of an emergency response before.
Make emergency exercise-based trainings mandatory for all health domains.

Many believe an emergency will not happen to them in their specific field and thus pass up the voluntary trainings on emergency operations. Zika struck reproductive health, COVID came for respiratory health, in which health domain will the next crisis strike? There’s no way to know, which is why these trainings should be mandatory and regularly exercised across health domains with an eye towards high priority scenarios, like:

  • Pandemic influenza
  • Vector-borne diseases (e.g., malaria, bubonic plague)
  • Natural disasters (e.g., hurricanes, wildfires)
  • Environmental hazards (e.g., chemical/oil spills, radiological incidents)

These trainings should be supplemented with YouTube-like clip series of short, discrete, actionable lessons would be designed to provide guidance and reinforce necessary skills in less than 5 minutes (e.g., how to use a test kit or fill out a report, etc.)

Take Away
Public health or medical expertise does not always translate to disaster response expertise. The most critical impact of inadequate training and staffing during an emergency response is that lives are at risk. Response staff needs access to the knowledge and support required to be prepared for their role and be able to deploy the necessary skills as soon as possible.


While the world is still caught up in the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s critical that we do not view this in isolation of the larger ecological crisis at play between nature and humans.

While our imagination may be limited to floods and wildfires, mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and Zika will become more prevalent as the planet’s hot zone around the equator expands by 5.5 feet everyday. Pathogens, dormant for centuries in the Arctic permafrost, are being released as the ice melts.

Regardless of where the threat comes from, the lives of billions of people will be at the whim of how effectively their government can marshal the necessary resources to put out the next fire (in a very real sense).

Firefighters in Greece rush to put out raging wildfires this summer amidst their most serious heatwave in 30 years.

When it comes to disaster and emergency response, most of us have no idea where to begin. And no, stop-drop-and-roll does not really count. For those on the front lines of responding, there is little time to look back – the next emergency is already upon them. The strain of a constant cycle of emergency activations and deployments have drained our public health and disaster response authorities. They need our help.

Responsible citizens have an opportunity and an obligation to demand action on the longstanding inefficiencies in our emergency response operations. If left unaddressed, they will continue to rear their head when the world can least afford 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 climate 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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Long Form Technology

Combining the Power of Robotic Process Automation and Blockchain

As federal organizations increase their exploration into the uses and applications of emerging technologies, opportunities for synergy between these technologies increase in tandem. Specifically, the combined effect between blockchain and robotic process automation (RPA) can be readily explored as adoption increases throughout the public sector.

Briefly defined, blockchain is a digitized, distributed ledger that can be public or permissioned, composed of “blocks” of records and linked together using cryptographic hashes. New blocks are appended to previous blocks based on consensus amongst peers, thus forming a chain that serves as a digital ledger of trusted transactions maintained among and across participants.

In place of multiple independent and isolated ledgers, there is a single shared record of events distributed across all blockchain ledger participants. While blockchain is used to store information, RPA is used to aggregate, clean, and transform it. RPA is a form of business process automation that utilizes software robots, or “bots”, to perform tasks through interactions in an application’s graphical user interface (GUI). Bots replicate human actions through performance of rules-based and manual tasks.

A 2018 Gartner CIO survey shows that 13% of U.S. federal organizations are in short-term planning and/or actively experimenting with blockchain. While the same report indicates that 6% of U.S. federal CIO respondents have already invested and deployed smart robot (i.e. robotics) technologies.

Additionally, a 2018 CIO Agenda: Government Insights report indicates that 7% of Government respondents rank process automation as a top business and mission objective. Given these statistics, technological collaboration amongst emerging technologies should be explored as possibilities for impactful solutions. Specifically, the impact of RPA across highly complex peer-to-peer business processes could be facilitated by blockchain providing a network effect of impact

Blockchain Today 

Blockchain, also known as distributed ledger technology, is becoming more widely accepted as an innovative way of storing and transferring data across a distributed network.

Blockchain’s potential virtues have been touted widely for a number of years. The peer-to-peer, distributed nature of blockchain allows for near real-time settlement of recorded transactions without the need for trusted third-party verification.

Federal agencies have begun to explore how blockchain implementations can enhance rapid information sharing, facilitate real-time asset tracking, or enable federated digital identities. Since blockchain ledgers contain cryptographically secured, verifiable records of each transaction in a chain—which have all been validated by a network-wide confirmation process—the technology helps to prevent double spending, fraud, abuse, and transaction manipulation.

Additionally, blockchain can be used to facilitate transactions through smart contracts. Smart contracts are pieces of code that can execute predefined tasks when specific conditions are met. Smart contracts further increase the capabilities of blockchain applications because they can digitally mediate, corroborate, enforce the negotiation of, or monitor the performance of a contract.

This can significantly augment data infrastructure, as demonstrated by organizations such as the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation using smart contracts in the clearing and settlement of $1.5 quadrillion worth of securities in 2015. These strengths have reinforced blockchain as an opportunity for growth in both the public and private industries — forecasted to be a $20 billion global market by 2024.

While blockchain adoption is becoming more widely accepted as an innovative way of storing and transferring data across a distributed network, blockchain systems still depend on a user interface or an external system interface to capture this data.

If the blockchain interfaces directly with raw user inputs, then the blockchain will capture those raw user inputs. When blockchain is combined with an intelligent data ingestion process that can sift through a large set of noisy data, users on the network can benefit from this shared, digitally verified repository of data.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Today

Robotic process automation has demonstrated the ability to increase processing times by up to 80%, improved accuracy by up to 99.9%, and increased throughput by 3-5x

Robotic process automation, known as RPA, is a technology that automates rules-based, manual processes. It has gained momentum in recent years as a promising solution to both improve speed and accuracy of various workplace challenges.

Federal organizations are continuously challenged by unfunded mandates, a shrinking workforce, pressure to deliver improved cycle times, and legacy systems housing valuable data that can be difficult and expensive to access or extract.

Implementation of RPA not only produces tangible results, such as improved processing times by up to 80%, improved accuracy by up to 99.9%, and increased throughput by 3-5x, but also leads to positive intangibles such as increased employee morale due to shift from low-value to high-value work activities and happier customers due to improved response times and accuracy of responses.

Blockchain and RPA as a Packaged Solution

Robotic process automation combined with an underlying infrastrcture of blockchain technology can accelerate the benefits of both technologies through automated tasks whose outputs can be distributed and updated real-time across a secure network,

While each technology has its own merits in addressing business challenges, utilizing the two technologies in conjunction with each other allows for innovative solutions that leverage the strength of both technologies, beyond the benefits of isolated implementations.

As government organizations graduate from experimental proofs of concept and look to build production-ready solutions, a common challenge they face involves the integration of a blockchain proof-of-concept prototype with existing RPA systems, processes, and interfaces. This point of integration can serve as an opportunity to demonstrate what happens when you combine the value of blockchain and RPA.

Case Study: Medical Record Consent Management

Medical information is one of the most intimate forms of data that exists. It can describe a person’s identity at a level that reflects one’s genetic history, lifestyle, and even their future. As a result, medical information has now also become a sought-after commodity. An electronic health record (EHR) is now more valuable to a hacker than a credit card number, as these records typically contain names, birth dates, billing information, and medical history.

Despite the importance of securing and managing control of medical data, this information can be scattered across medical centers, physician offices, health plans, and other entities. Often these health care organizations store this sensitive data in different digital formats and EHR systems, which makes the task of securing and sharing this information very difficult for patients.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health Information Technology is at the forefront of tackling this challenge in their efforts to promote of nationwide health information exchange to improve health care.

An integrated RPA-Blockchain solution could be particularly valuable for ONC when it comes to patients providing consent for medical providers to share health records across organizations.

When going to a new doctor today, the process of requesting medical and consent records from your previous provider is time intensive and disparate across different providers. With time being of the essence, a lengthy consent verification process could delay a life-saving diagnosis or procedure.

Current State – A Slow and Fragmented Process to Share Patient Data

Today when a patient visits a new doctor the physician may not have access to any of the patient’s historical medical records. In order to access them, the doctor must make a request to the patient’s other health care providers asking them to share the individual’s data. To complete this exchange, the patient must sign a medical release form to establish their consent for their previous providers to share their health records with their new provider. Once a patient’s consent is verified, the record is transferred and the receiving provider intakes and parses the data.

The process of requesting records, verifying consent, consolidating information, and transferring data is time intensive and disparate across different providers and provider organizations. With time being of the essence in certain care scenarios, a lengthy consent verification process could delay a life-saving diagnosis or procedure.

In addition, the current health record sharing process does not allow for the customization of sharing permissions or efficient audit trails of those permissions. For example, a patient is typically not able to set specific opt in and opt out preferences when giving access to specific medical information, e.g., mental health, substance abuse, and sexual and reproductive health records.

Health organizations not only need ubiquitous access to all consent permissions when it comes to the sharing of protected information under HIPAA, but they must also be prepared to immediately respond to patient changes to these preferences.

Appropriate and timely sharing of vital patient information better informs decision-making at the point of care and allows clinicians to:

  • Decrease duplicate testing
  • Avoid medication errors
  • Avoid readmissions
  • Improve decision making

Traditional solutions and technologies have not been able to completely solve these issues, leaving patients in a position where they face challenges in taking advantage of their own medical information to improve their health care. A game changer is needed.

Future State – Leveraging RPA and Blockchain to Improve Interoperability, Speed, and Security When Sharing Patient Data

Imagine a world where all members of the health care ecosystem across health plans, providers, pharmaceutical firms, and patients could be connected on a single health care information network. All players know the rules of operation and can freely exchange information digitally between one or more parties without fear of data leakage or compromise.

Future State Vision: A healthcare ecosystem where health plans, providers, pharmaceutical firms, and patients could be connected on a single health care information network and can freely exchange information digitally without fear of data leakage or compromise.

A packaged RPA-blockchain solution could make this vision come true by enabling an efficient, trusted mechanism for verifying patient consent, increasing interoperability between health information systems, and providing auditable record sharing. How?

On the most basic level, RPA can be used to bridge integration gaps between legacy software. Bots can push and pull patient data from existing systems owned or stored by providers, provider organizations, electronic health record aggregators, government entities, or insurance companies and then convert the data into a consumable format.

Blockchain accelerates the integration speed and value of RPA by providing “smart contracts” that enshrine the permissions and automate the processes surrounding what type of health data is allowed to be shared, with whom, and under what circumstances. Furthermore, the blockchain logs a digital record of exactly when an action happens so it can be audited for compliance and be verified by any party participating in the blockchain network.

In a dual deployment of blockchain and RPA, blockchain serves as the solution’s backbone, supplying the rules-based information sharing platform, while utilizing RPA optimizes the solution’s output. The benefit of RPA bots is that they can operate exponentially faster than humans with near perfect accuracy across IT infrastructure and can effectively bridge multiple disparate systems to the blockchain.

Blockchain and RPA would be combined as a packaged solution for integration into an organization’s current IT infrastructure.

Essentially, RPA enhances the blockchain’s data ingestion and extraction processes across the many dispersed and detached legacy systems that dot the health record infrastructure landscape. This concept is summarized in Figure 1 above where an RPA-driven blockchain solution can seamlessly integrate pre-existing data collection points across an enterprise or network to consolidate permissions and act as the single source of truth for patient consent.

By utilizing RPA, organizations can maintain their current systems without overhauling their IT infrastructure to achieve integration with blockchain. Thus, the RPA solution transforms data into usable formats, eliminating the need to replace legacy systems. This packaged solution allows organizations to reduce investment costs, implementation time, and the impact of technological transformation, keeping the transition near invisible to the consumers of affected IT systems while allowing organizations to reap all benefits of blockchain.

In contrast to the existing method of having administrative staff conduct database queries, track down paperwork, or contact other health care providers via phone, fax, or courier, a consent management system that leverages RPA and blockchain-based smart contracts could verify patient consent preferences near instantaneously.

The table below summarizes the current state of patient consent management, and a future state where RPA and blockchain technologies can come together and work in tandem to realize efficiencies and automate the consent management process. 

Current StateFuture State
Patient signs medical release paperwork at each individual health care provider or provider organizationA patient visits one provider or provider organization that uses an electronic health record data sharing platform with all other providers and provider organizations in the health care ecosystem. The patient can manage their consent preferences for each provider or provider organization on one platform, including managing what information they consent to share at a more granular level (e.g. mental, substance abuse, and sexual and reproductive health records) or macro community level (e.g. full hospital group or full care network)  
Health care organizations communicate via e-mail, phone, fax, or courier to request and transmit health recordsWhen one health care provider or provider group needs data from another, RPA bots will query the platform’s database for the patient’s consent preferences, then the blockchain smart contract initiates an automatic execution of record sharing based on the validated permission settings
Receiving health care provider or provider organization compiles and parses records in various digital formats and data structures, sometimes manuallyRPA efficiently consolidates and parses all the available data into one consolidated, uniformly structured and formatted record
All health care organizations maintain an individual, sometimes paper-based, often manually managed, record of when health record data was shared and whom betweenThe blockchain maintains an incorruptible electronic record of all health care data exchanges that occur between network participants and is auditable by everyone in the ecosystem  

Deep Dive: RPA as a Mediation Layer

As organizations look to implement blockchain, they must also examine methods and strategies for tying in the technology with their existing infrastructure. Two places in which integration occurs is the process for which users attempt to “write” data onto the blockchain and the process for which users attempt to “read” data from the blockchain.

While organizations could elect to directly access and write data from and to existing IT systems through an Application Programming Interface (API), raw data may not always live in a usable format. This restriction is especially true for the case of smart contracts. Smart contracts are built with specific data standards that must be contextualized and formatted properly to be written to the chain.

Selecting RPA as the bridge between blockchain and existing IT systems addresses both the issue of cost and user familiarity. From a data ingestion perspective, the end-user would input data with their existing standard operating procedures using an already accustomed system and UI. This removes any cost and time associated with a new user interface and allows for a simpler implementation of blockchain into the day to day processes.

The bot would then locate the input data through the existing system’s data endpoint, whether that be a database, flat files, or other storage formats. Once located, the bot will filter for relevant information and transform the data to a blockchain consumable format to be passed through the configured API and added to the blockchain, as depicted in the figure below.

Process for data ingestion and extraction with the use of RPA as a mediation layer

From a data extraction perspective, a bot would scan the blockchain and locate relevant data on the blockchain to be pulled. The bot would then transform the data, cross-referencing any ancillary database, into a format digestible by the consuming IT system. An end-user would be able to access the data within their familiarized systems without any modifications to their standard operating procedures.  

In the case of patient consent, HIPAA compliance authorities, such as HHS could participate in health information exchange networks to verify whether parties in the network comply with HIPAA requirements. These scenarios increase the transparency and accessibility of information between parties and across systems.


Implementing RPA and blockchain as a packaged solution allows organizations to reap the benefits of blockchain while reducing costs, implementation time, and need for users to adapt to new systems and processes. In a future state, RPA and blockchain could reduce communication channels, the need for third-party exchange networks, and automate portions of the electronic health record management process.

As other emerging technologies mature, possibilities of collaborative solutions, such as the relationship between RPA and blockchain, should be considered. These packaged solutions may offer unique approaches to challenging problems, expanding the realm of what is possible through digital evolution.

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 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.

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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.

Investigative Report Long Form Politics and Government

But Her Emails: A Deeper Look At The Legal Issues Behind Classified Information

Upon assuming the role of Secretary of State in 2009, Hillary Clinton and her aides struggled with how to separate her work and business related communications in an increasingly digital and mobile age. The result was the set up of a private email server forgoing the use of an official email address altogether. Thus, the Hillary Clinton email scandal was born.

Even though this scandal has been going on for over a year, a vast majority of Americans are still unsure of what exactly she did wrong. Many in the Democratic Party believe this whole controversy has simply been a partisan, Republican attack to damage her Presidential campaign. That view has been reinforced by Sen. Bernie Sanders who has refused to raise the issue in the 2016 Democratic primary thus far – something both potential Republican nominees have promised to do in the general election. So what is going on here?

In August 2015, the FBI officially launched an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while she was Secretary of State. The primary issue that FBI investigators are looking at is whether or not Clinton knowingly retained, transmitted, or deleted classified information from her private server. Communicating this type of information through unsecure means could put highly classified government secrets at risk by making them susceptible to hackers and spies. 

FBI Director James Comey to date has not spoken publicly about the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server

As of January 2016, the State Department has withheld 22 emails from Clinton’s server as “top secret” and too classified to release to the public.  Two of these emails surround the movement of North Korean missiles, and the specifics of a drone operation.

There are several laws surrounding the mishandling of classified information which are spelled out under Title 18 US Criminal Codes and Procedures. The two statutes federal investigators are most interested in are Title 18 U.S. Code § 1924 and Title 18 U.S. Code § 793.

Title 18 U.S. Code § 1924 : Unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material

(a) Whoever, being an officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States, and, by virtue of his office, employment, position, or contract, becomes possessed of documents or materials containing classified information of the United States, knowingly removes such documents or materials without authority and with the intent to retain such documents or materials at an unauthorized location shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.

Title 18 U.S. Code § 793 –  Gathering, transmitting or losing defense information

(f) Whoever, being entrusted with or having lawful possession or control of any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, note, or information, relating to the national defense, (1) through gross negligence permits the same to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, or (2) having knowledge that the same has been illegally removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of its trust, or lost, or stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, and fails to make prompt report of such loss, theft, abstraction, or destruction to his superior officer

Section 1924 and 793 establishes that anyone that possesses classified information and knowingly, or through “gross negligence” removes it without authority or retains it in an unauthorized location shall face punishment.

Clinton Defense:

  • Clinton has denied wrongdoing by saying these emails have all been retroactively classified, and she neither sent nor received information “marked classified” while Secretary of State. More importantly, as the head of the agency she was the ultimate arbiter of what information would or wouldn’t be considered classified at the time.
  • There is no law that prevents federal employees from having a non-government, personal email as long as relevant work-related documents are preserved. She points to several other public officials who used private emails while in office, including former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell and that the current Secretary of State John Kerry is the first to primarily use a email account.
  • The campaign has argued that her work-related emails were captured on government systems because she was emailing with folks with government email addresses, and as far as deleting or destroying relevant records, she says the emails that were destroyed on her server were personal correspondence that she has the legal right to decide what to do with.

What the FBI has to decide:

  • Did Clinton knowingly remove classified information when she wiped her server?
  • Did Clinton know that the emails being sent from her private email address through her private email server contained classified information?

Below are 3 scenarios where the FBI and DOJ will have to make an assessment on these questions.

Will Hillary Clinton’s e-mails with Clinton Foundation employee Sidney Blumenthal meet the threshold that she knowingly retained “classified information” on her private server and also communicated information of “the national defense” with someone “not entitled to receive it.”?

Clinton’s use of a private server was unveiled as a result of the Congressional investigation into the 2012 terrorist attacks which killed 4 Americans at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In December 2014, Clinton turned over all the emails deemed “work-related” to the State Department and the Benghazi investigation. During the review of these emails it was revealed that she had extensively corresponded with someone by the name Sidney Blumenthal while Secretary of State.

Sidney “Sid” Blumenthal was a former journalist at the New Yorker who became one of the Clinton’s closest aides and confidants during Bill Clinton’s administration. At the time of the Benghazi attacks, Blumenthal was not a State Department employee, despite having tried, he worked at the Clinton’s large non-profit organization, The Clinton Foundation.

Once his correspondence with Hillary Clinton came to light, Blumenthal was summoned to testify before the Congressional Benghazi committee in June 2015. In a closed door meeting with the committee members, Blumenthal turned over 60 emails that he had exchanged with Hillary Clinton. Once the committee crosschecked the emails that Blumenthal had turned over with the ones Clinton had handed over to the State Department, they found that she had not turned over nine emails and portions of six others – 15 emails in all were unaccounted for.  After accusations that she deleted these emails, the State Department released a new 1,500 pages of Clinton’s emails in September 2015 that were previously undisclosed to the Benghazi committee.

Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal subpoenaed by Congress in May 2015

The additional tranche of emails revealed at least 84 containing classified information, including ones she sent. Several email between her and Blumenthal have had select paragraphs and even entire pages redacted.  This June 2012 memo has been completely redacted, and this September 2012 memo even has the subject line hidden.  

Blumenthal in fact prefaced many of his intelligence memos to Clinton by saying they came from “an extremely sensitive source” and the information “should be handled with care”.  This throws into doubt Clinton’s argument that she could not know information was classified because it was not “marked classified”. Clinton repeatedly forwarded these emails to her aides, thanked Blumenthal and encouraged him to continue sending her information.

The most incriminating email from Blumenthal to Clinton is a memo where he reveals the name of a CIA intelligence operative in Libya.  In a March 2011 memo, Blumenthal wrote “Tyler spoke to a colleague currently at the CIA, who told him the agency had been dependent for intelligence from [redacted due to sources and methods].” Despite the email not being “marked classified”, information about a current CIA asset which was illegally obtained would likely fall under the purview of a 2009 Non-Disclosure Agreement Clinton signed which stipulates that “classified information is marked or unmarked classified information.”

John Rizzo, a former general counsel at the CIA, said of the memo “it’s the most sensitive kind of classified information — the true identity of a human source.

J. William Leonard, a former director of the U.S. government’s Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) who worked for both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations said of the information “It’s born classified”…for the State Department to say otherwise was “blowing smoke.”

Clinton, by law, was supposed to report this improper disclosure of classified information to Department of State Inspector General. But interestingly during her tenure, there was no Inspector General for the State Department, the longest there had been an absence in that position since 1957. Clinton is one of ten members of the US government which determines what is classified information, yet still forwarded this email to one of her aides – debunking her claim that she never sent classified information through her private server.

“This is a serious breach of national security and a clear violation of the law”, said Army Col. Larry Mrozinski, who served almost four years as a ­senior military adviser in the State Department under both Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.  “It’s hard to imagine that in her position she would fail to recognize the obvious…anybody else would have already lost their security clearance and be subjected to an espionage investigation,” Mrozinski added.

If the FBI concludes that the identity and location of this CIA operative was authentic then this could be considered a violation of Section 1924 for possessing “documents containing classified information” (even if it was not marked classified) at an “unauthorized location” (on her private server). Furthermore, this would prove that Clinton was corresponding about information “of the national defense” with an employee of The Clinton Foundation, even though Blumenthal was never given a security clearance to deal with such sensitive information in the first place. 

Clinton forwarding his email to others and encouraging additional information be sent could be considered a violation of Section 793, Section 798, and the 2009 Non-Disclosure Agreement for “knowingly and willfully” communicating sensitive information with someone who was not “properly authorized by the United States Government to receive it“. However, the case to prosecute Clinton under Section 793, “The Espionage Act,” is far weaker than the other statutes. It is easy to piece together certain behavior and claim that she has violated the law, but intent is important when deciding to prosecute. 

There is an argument to be made based off of a 1941 Supreme Court case that in order to be prosecuted under The Espionage Act, the disclosure of this information would have had to be done in “bad faith” and with “intent” to injure the United States. It is not currently possible to say Clinton intended to injure anyone by forwarding the e-mail, and that likely would not be true anyway. The FBI will have to assess what additional information her deleted emails may contain with regards to her “intent” when using her private email to discuss classified information.

Does Hillary Clinton’s failure to encrypt her private server for the first two months as Secretary, along with other security lapses, constitute “gross negligence” while possessing information of “the national defense”?

Once Clinton turned over her server to the FBI in August 2015, reports began to emerge that it was extremely vulnerable to hacking attempts because the server permitted remote-access connections directly over the Internet. Not only that, Clinton did not encrypt any of her emails for the first two months as Secretary of State.

Before becoming Secretary of State in 2009, Clinton purchased a private email server to be installed in her home in New York. On this server she used the email address for all work and personal correspondence throughout her 4-year tenure as Secretary. She did not use, or activate, an official State Department “” email account throughout this time. Hillary Clinton’s email server and address ( were not sanctioned by the State Department as one of the agency’s authorized electronic recordkeeping systems under the National Archives and Records Administration‘s (NARA) regulations.

This separates her case from former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice who had a private email address, but primarily used their work email. They did not go as far as to have all their communications flow through a private server which only they controlled, nor were they sending highly classified information through their private email. Colin Powell had only two of his e-mails retroactively classified, that too at the lowest level.

One of Clinton’s primary defenses has been that her predecessors Rice and Powell also used private email addresses

After scanning the “clintonemail” domain, a private cybersecurity firm found that from January 2009 to March 2009 the domain had no digital certificate issued by an authority. Without what’s called an “SSL” certificate, data flows through in the form of plain text. This means all of Clinton’s web browser, smartphone and tablet communications would not have been “encrypted,”  which allows any hacker to read that information.

Marc Maiffret, who has founded two cybersecurity companies, called her set up total amateur hour” and that “real enterprise-class security, with teams dedicated to these things, would not do this.” “An attacker with a low skill-level would be able to exploit this vulnerability,” said a Homeland Security Department’s U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness team.

Clinton has so far refused to answer questions about how well her system was secured, the types of safeguards on her server and whether, or how frequently, security updates were applied. Clinton’s first email sent from the server was on January 28th, 2009, but the Clinton’s server wasn’t issued an SSL certificate until March 29th, 2009 – contradicting her claim that this system wasn’t used till after March 2009. During those two months, Clinton’s travel logs show that she visited China, Indonesia, Egypt, Israel, Japan and South Korea and discussed issues about North Korea, Mexico, Afghanistan, military advisers, CIA operations and a briefing for Obama.

There are now reports that, Asian governments may have been reading Clinton’s information during the 3 month window when her server did not have an SSL certificate. While Clinton has claimed there is no evidence that her private server was successfully hacked, there have been two confirmed hacking attempts into Clinton’s email server:  one in 2011 from Russia and a second one in 2012 from Serbia. There are now reports of dozens more hacking attempts into her server, some even originating from allies like China, South Korea and Germany.

While the specific safeguards for her email server are still unknown, we know these two things for sure. First, the State Department was aware of these lapses, warned Clinton and attempted to provide her with a secure “” email account, but she chose not to use it. Second and more damningly, Clinton tried to modify existing State Department security protocols so she would be able to use her unsecured Blackberry in a secure facility (called a SCIF) to view classified information. The NSA said no.

Does the lax security for her private server and attempted circumvention of security protocols while there were confirmed hacking attempts into her server demonstrate “gross negligence” while retaining information of the national defense? The FBI will have to make the call.

Does Hillary Clinton transferring the data from her private server to Platte River Networks and then wiping the server constitute retaining “classified information” at an “unauthorized location”, having information of the “national defense” be “lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed“, and an obstruction of justice?

Whether or not Clinton’s private email server itself violated The Federal Records Act, The National Archives Regulations or the Freedom of Information Act remains the subject of legal debate. But what she chose to do with her data after leaving office has not received as much attention.

After Hillary stepped down as Secretary of State in February 2013, she chose to upgrade her private email server. In June 2013, a small IT company in Denver called Platte River Networks won a contract to provide information technology services to Bill and Hillary Clinton, which included taking possession of Hillary’s email server while she was Secretary of State. The role of Platte River Networks was to “upgrade, secure and manage the e-mail server for both the Clintons and their staff beginning June 2013.”

This was a huge contract for a company that had actually never held a federal contract before, had no prior relationship with the Clintons, and who’s most notable accomplishment at the time was winning the 2012 Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year award. In June 2013, the company took Clinton’s server from her home in New York and transferred it to a secure facility in New Jersey. It was here the data from her original server was “migrated” to a new server for the purpose of making the transition to Platte River Networks.

After leaving office, Clinton had the data from her private server transferred to a private, not well known, IT company in Denver called Platte River Networks

Platte River Networks did not have clearance to handle classified government information. Cindy McGovern, a spokeswoman for an agency within the Defense Department that vets companies for security clearances, said her office had not extended one to Platte River Networks. The company has admitted that as far as it knows, their employees never held formal government-issued security clearances.

Given the existence of classified information on her private server, Clinton’s decision to transfer this information to a private IT company with no security clearance could be violation of Section 1924 for housing sensitive information at an “unauthorized location,” but could even fall under Section 793 for “gross negligence” in handling information of “the national defense.”

Then there is the question of the wiping of the email server. Clinton claims the emails she deleted were personal and not work related, and its up to her if she wanted to get rid of them, even if she decided to do so 2 years after leaving the State Department. Because all of her correspondence is in her control and not the government’s, it is difficult to verify the claim.

However the FBI has attempted to do so by approaching Platte River Networks to retrieve Clinton’s original server. There are reports that employees at the company began to fear a cover-up as they received a letter from Clinton Executive Service Corp instructing them to “cut the back up”.

The employees did not do so and the FBI has now recovered deleted emails which they considered to contain work-related information. This debunks her claim, which she made under the penalty of perjury, that she turned over all her work-related emails to the State Department.

In addition, if they find find highly classified emails then she could be considered attempting to obstruct justice and be in violation of Section 793 for having information of the “national defense” be “lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed”.

What will happen next?

Bryan Pagliano, Clinton’s IT staff member who managed the private server, has been granted immunity – likely signaling that he will be providing testimony to a grand jury.

Last month the Justice Department granted immunity to Clinton’s IT staff member who managed her e-mail server, Bryan Pagliano.  A witness is usually granted immunity if he/she will be giving testimony to a grand jury about evidence that relates to an investigation, and usually implicates themselves in a crime. Until now, Pagliano has been pleading the 5th Amendment and has refused to cooperate with the investigation surrounding how the e-mail server was set up and the safeguards put in place. There are even suspicions of fraud involving his hiring and payment, which were all done by the Clintons, and not reported to the State Department.

Many have said a granting of immunity is not evidence of guilt, rather a competent lawyer who is seeking protections for their client before cooperating with an investigation. Pagliano receiving immunity may ultimately be inconsequential, but one former FBI official said, “you don’t start granting people close to Clinton immunity unless you are seriously looking at charges against your target.

The FBI is expected to officially announce the findings from the investigation around May or June. The Democratic National Convention will choose the party’s nominee for President at the end of July. If Clinton is found guilty of any charges she must either withdraw her name from the Democratic primary, or continue to deny/downplay wrongdoing and hope that she will still collect enough delegates in the remaining primary states to secure the nomination. If a heavy charge is brought down and she chooses to withdraw from the race, Bernie Sanders would likely become the nominee. However, there are rumors there could still be a contested convention because of the party’s high number of super delegates.

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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Health Long Form

Incentivizing Kidney Donations: A Tax Credit Scheme


There is an organ crisis in America. Currently, hundreds of thousands of Americans are on waiting lists to receive organ transplantations for livers, hearts, and kidneys and fewer and fewer organs are being donated every year. The most egregious of these shortages is being seen in the kidney market where an estimated 50,000 Americans will die waiting for a kidney this year alone.

This failure of supply to keep up with demand has its roots in a failure to provide incentives for individuals to donate their organs. It is currently illegal to sell ones kidney and receive monetary compensation. The current proposals around this involve tweaking current laws to acquire ones organs after death, or repealing the ban altogether and allowing for direct compensation.

There are several practical and moral flaws with both of these initiatives, thus this paper proposes a tax-credit scheme to incentivize individuals to give up their kidneys as an alternative. This tax-credit would not violate the ban currently in place to compensate those for donation and would avoid the flaws in previous proposals to give America a fighting chance to overcome this organ crisis.


In 1984, the National Organ Transplant Act was passed in the United States which deemed it illegal for anyone to sell or acquire an organ for “valuable consideration”. The passage of this law set the precedent for any and all organ transplantations to occur only if the organ was received through donation; purchase or sale of organs resulted in five year prison sentence and a hefty fine (FindLaw).

Unfortunately, only 30-40% of Americans have listed themselves as organ donors on a driver’s license or through state run donor registries (Satel), and the gap between those on the waiting-list to receive organs and the amount of organs donated annually continues to widen (

In 2006, 70,000 Americans were waiting for life-saving kidney transplantations and around 10,000 kidneys were donated that year (Satel). As of September 8th 2014, over 120,000 Americans are waiting for kidneys and around 16,000 kidneys have been donated (National Kidney Foundation). To this day, someone on the list waiting for a kidney dies about every 90 minutes (Satel) with a staggering rate of 50,000 individuals expected to die this year still waiting for a kidney (Beard, Kaserman and Osterkamp).  

If there is no structural change in either the system of organ procurement or the technology of transplant medicine, the likelihood of resolving current shortages in kidney donation looks very bleak. A simple simulation model based on current data around US renal waiting lists predicts that by 2015 the amount of Americans waiting for a kidney will balloon to over twice the amount in 2006 to 160,000 and lives lost to kidney shortages will exceed 100,000 (Beard, Kaserman and Osterkamp).

This problem is compounded by the current health crisis in America where the conditions that give rise to renal failure such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity are increasing exponentially (Beard, Kaserman and Osterkamp). America will see a greater demand for kidneys in future and the current rate of donation is already not meeting the demand, thus the impending organ crisis in this country has made one thing clear – relying on altruism is not enough.

Literature Review

The solution is obvious – increase the overall kidney supply pool in some way. There have been several methods discussed to increase the supply, but they have split along two camps: those that work within the National Organ Transplant Act and those that seek its repeal. Those that wish to work within NOTA have pushed two main initiatives – expanding organ donor eligibility to patients who have died of cardiac arrest (currently outlawed) and adopting the European practice of “presumed consent” whereby citizens are considered organ donors upon their death unless they have explicitly signed an anti-donor or opt-out card (Satel). However, the total amount of organs that would be added to the pool from implementing either of those strategies alone or together would fall far short of the booming demand (Abadie and Gay).

Those that wish to repeal NOTA have championed legislation that would remove the ban on the sale or purchase of organs and would allow direct cash compensation in exchange for kidneys, hearts, livers etc. Economists globally have supported this method with over 70 percent favoring the legalization of organ sales (Beard, Kaserman and Osterkamp). From their perspective, the shortage of organs is a result of a failure to provide incentives – there is really no incentive for someone to give up a non-vital organ such as a kidney before their death if their only motivation is the desire to help someone else.  Economists argue that by opening a free-market for organs both the demand and supply side of the equation would be helped. 

On the supply side, given that demand is so high for the organs there would be a huge incentive to sell one’s own organs or those of a deceased family member and collect a very good price. Economists argue that legalization could single-handedly eliminate the shortage for organs given that the average cost for a kidney transplantation is $259,000 and even a fraction of that as compensation would skyrocket supply (Becker and Elias). On the demand side organ exchange businesses would arise and begin selling organs at lower prices. As competition to buy organs increases given the increasing demand, companies would continue to slash prices to capture the market demand leading to overall lower prices for those in need of organs as well (Andiew and Block).

The push-pack to this proposal has been strong from many fronts, in particular the Institute of Medicine cautioning that this will lead to a slippery slope of treating the body as if it were “for sale”. Studies have shown that financial incentives may actually lead to a decline in the supply of organs because it distorts the signal about preferences that organ donation gives which is meant to be purely altruistic in nature and perhaps “cheapens” the process (Byrne and Thompson).  

Proponents of the legalization of organ sales argue that that form of thinking is outdated given that America has already accepted a free market approach for human eggs, sperm and surrogate mothers (Satel). However, there is legitimate concern that the legalization of organ sales could spur unethical and even criminal exploitation of vulnerable donors (Danovitch and Delmonico). Opponents argue that legalization will set off a global race of “transplant tourism” where organized crime rings would travel across impoverished areas in the United States and around the world to capture and harvest organs from powerless individuals and sell their organs on the market for a profit (Danovitch and Delmonico). This possibility has shown to be uniquely likely for kidneys. In Hong Kong and Israel where the sale of kidneys had been legalized, there was a sharp increase in unnamed or unidentified kidney sales (Danovitch and Delmonico).

Given these risks, this paper argues for a third option as an alternative to legalization and methods that still maintain NOTA – providing a weak economic incentive to donate organs. Thomas Søbirk from the University of Roskilde in Denmark has argued that individuals are more likely to donate to a particular cause the more of their donations they are able to deduct from their taxes. Extrapolating from this conclusion, a tax-credit mechanism to compensate individuals for organ donations may be able to satisfy the demand for kidneys. If individuals can only receive deductions in their taxes in that country that should theoretically eliminate the risk of foreign organ sellers who would not be able to collect the benefits of harvesting illegal organs, but still able to increase the supply of the overall organ and kidney pool.


A tax-credit scheme as a solution to the current shortage in kidney donations, in particular the one I am proposing, will take form in two separate ways. The first is offering an annual tax credit (~$500) for an individual agreeing to be an organ donor upon their death. The second is receiving a tax credit for donating a kidney as a living donor. There are two components to this as well – the first is that there is a fixed rate of a $5,000 deduction in taxes per kidney donated. Humans cannot survive with less than one of their two kidneys so this will be a one-time deduction. The second component is where any costs incurred as a result of donating the kidney (the procedure, recovery, travel etc) will be deducted from their taxable income.

To prevent against abuse and exploitation of this system, I propose a $15,000 cap on deductions as well as all expenditures being cleared by a medical doctor as an expense derived from the removal of the kidney.  This tax-credit should theoretically increase the pool of kidney donations in two ways. First, it works to address the negative impacts of donating an organ by compensating individuals and secondly it attaches a positive incentive to donate with the promise of future deductions in their taxable income. If all individuals in this economy are seeking to maximize their utility, this measure ensures that individuals are not worse off after donating their kidney and are in fact better off in the future.

According to the Grossman Model, health is an investment that can accumulate or depreciate over time. The choice to donate an organ is detrimental to one’s health even if only in the short-term since there are costs associated with recovery. The equation below projects an individual’s lifetime utility. The individuals discount date, δ, is a measure of much they value utility now more than in the future. In this scenario, an individual choosing to give up a non-vital organ like a kidney in exchange for the reward of tax reduction (indirectly compensation) indicates that they value utility in the future more than they value utility now and thus have a large δ.

I now want to address potential concerns with this proposal as opposed to the ones discussed in the literature. The first concern is that the tax-credit will ultimately have no effect on increasing the rate of kidney donation and may actually decrease the number of people willing to donate. The idea that the tax-credit proposal would be counter-productive in increasing donation draws from the Byrne and Thompson paper that financial incentives distort the signal of organ donation and cheapen the process – this is formally known as the Titmuss objection.

Richard Titmuss established the framework of blood donation using payment as an incentive versus a system of altruistic unpaid donors (Buyx). In his work, he alleges that paying for giving up your blood changes the social meaning of giving blood because it denies those individuals the ability to gift those who are in need and makes them less likely to donate. The proposal may succumb to this criticism as a tax deduction in exchange for kidney donation would make the donation no longer a pure gift, thus depriving donors the ability to make a moral choice and theoretically making them less likely to donate.

While Titmuss bases his conclusions empirically, they may not apply to organ donation as they do to blood donation.  As mentioned earlier, studies have shown that individuals are more likely to donate to a particular cause the more of their donations they are able to deduct from their taxes, and in particular studies suggest that even a modest cash payment would increase the number of organ donors (Kittur and Hogan).

However, a tax-credit does not have to be compulsory and could avoid the Titmuss objection all together. Individuals can choose to donate their organs without receiving the tax deduction and could in fact give monetary value of the tax-break to a charity of their choice, thus retaining the donation as purely an altruistic act. Ultimately what is more important is preventing people from dying on waiting-lists for organs and if a tax-credit can help reduce these needless deaths we have a moral obligation to pursue it even if may rob some of the ability to perform an altruistic act. The kidney shortage has compounded into a crisis precisely because of the failure of altruism to provide the necessary impetus to donate organs.

The second objection is that this tax-credit scheme could lead to exploitation of the poor. Tax benefits are intuitively less appealing to the wealthy since they are already retaining a sufficient amount of their income to live comfortably, thus this policy will disproportionately affect those in lower income brackets trying to take advantage of the promise of lower taxes. This, however, is not really an argument against the efficacy of the tax-credit if it ultimately increases the number of kidneys donated to the pool. More importantly, the action of giving up ones kidney is a voluntary choice and as long as the poor can benefit from this proposal while also helping others in need it should not be considered exploitative.

The more important question is if this proposal is able to address concerns of transplant tourism as a form of exploitation of the poor. As mentioned before, one of the principle concerns of legalizing organ sales is the fear that individuals may forcibly remove organs from the poor domestically and internationally to sell both in legal and black markets. This proposal works against such insidious acts in two ways. First, in order to claim any tax deductions the organs must come from the claimant’s body itself which can be verified with simple medical scans. Secondly, if there is an influx of organs donated following the implementation of this tax-credit this would eliminate the value of illicitly obtained organs abroad or domestically because supply is already catching up to demand and registered, “legally obtained” organs would already be available.

The idea of legally obtained organs begs the question of the final concern – is a tax-credit for donating organs legal under the National Organ Transplant Act? I believe it is under certain legal interpretations.

First, NOTA explicitly prohibits donors from transferring human organs for “valuable consideration”, but the tax-credit does not give deductions based on the expense of the organ itself but on the expenses incurred in donating the organ. In other words, the donor is not being compensated for the value of their organ, but rather being compensated for the travel, lodging, lost wages, recovery costs etc associated with donating the organ.

Second, NOTA’s jurisdiction extends only as far as inter-state commerce is concerned, if states implement this policy at the local and state level in ways that would have no bearing on inter-state commerce then it should remain perfectly legal. Preventing the tax-credit from interfering with interstate commerce could occur in a few ways – recipients can only receive organs from donors within their state, donors can only receive a deduction in their state taxes not federal taxes etc.  Despite these work-around methods, more should be done to help those dying every day on kidney transplant waiting lists and political action to repeal NOTA maybe what is truly needed to make a substantial dent in organ shortages.


As is, supply will not catch up with demand in the organ transplant market and hundreds of thousands will die every year waiting to receive a kidney. Unfortunately this trend will only grow as more and more individuals are succumbing to the epidemic in diabetes, obesity etc which is leading to increased kidney failures. In order to change the market there needs to be a change in incentives.

This paper proposes a weak economic incentive, a tax-credit, to encourage individuals to donate their kidneys for those in need. This tax-credit works two-fold: a smaller tax-credit (~$500) every year for agreeing to be an organ donor upon their death and second larger tax-credit which compensates individuals for the costs incurred to donate their kidney. While this is certainly not the silver bullet needed to close the large gap for organ transplants, it will go a long way. Though many have reservations about this proposal, both from a legal and moral perspective, it is the most viable option compared to the alternatives.

Initiatives that work purely within the National Organ Transplant Act would not be able to contribute enough organs and primarily require waiting on individuals to pass on before acquiring their organs – this is time we do not have. Initiatives that ask to repeal NOTA and allow direct compensation for organ donation, although popular, risk “transplant tourism” where individuals may kidnap the poor and helpless and harvest their organs and sell on the market. In addition, full legalization and compensation faces the Titmuss objection that alleges compensation commodifies the social meaning of purely altruistic donation and will turn people against donation.

A tax-credit proposal avoids most of these concerns. Empirical research has shown that charitable donations increase if they are tied to reduction in taxes, and more so any form of compensation is an impetus to donate organs – this should allow tax-credits to increase organ donations in the short-term. Tax-credits are able to avoid the Titmuss objection because it retains the donation of ones organ as purely a gift and only compensates the individual for the costs they incur in bestowing the gift, not awarding them anything in addition for doing a good deed.

Tax credits are also able to avoid fears of transplant tourism by ensuring that those who receive the deduction can only provide organs from their own bodies and additionally the increase in supply in the market will reduce the inclination to accept organs from unidentified donors. Finally, this proposal is able to skirt questions of legality under NOTA. First, it is not directly compensating donors for the value of their organ but the cost undertaken by the donor to give up their organ, and secondly it can be implemented by the states as to avoid issues of inter-state commerce – where NOTA is able to enforce its jurisdiction.

Ultimately, someone is dying every hour and half from needing an organ transplant. By next year, over 100,000 individuals will die in the wealthiest country in the world waiting for a kidney. We have a moral obligation to prevent these needless deaths from occurring and a tax-credit scheme to incentivize individuals to donate their kidneys is a promising first step.

Works Cited

  • Abadie, Alberto and Gay, Sebastien. “The impact of presumed consent legislation on cadaveric organ donation: A cross-country study”,  Journal of Health Economics 25 (2006) 599–620
  • Andiew, Scott and Harold, Block. “Organ Transplant: Using the Free Market Solves the Problem”, Journal of Clinical Research in Bioethics, May 2011
  • Beard, Randolph, Kaserman, David & Osterkamp, Rigmar. “The Global Organ Shortage: Economic Causes, Human Consequences, Policy Responses. Stanford University Press, page 68-71 and 207-212 (appeared in a review in the Journal of Political Economy)
  • Becker, Gary S., and Julio Jorge Elías. 2007. “Introducing Incentives in the Market for Live and Cadaveric Organ Donations.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 21(3): 3-24.
  • Buyx, Alena. “Blood Donation, Payment, and Non-Cash Incentives: Classical Questions Drawing Renewed Interest”, Transfus Med Hemother. Oct 2009; 36(5): 329–339
  • Byrne, Margaret and Thompson, Peter. “A positive analysis of financial incentives for cadaveric organ donation”, Journal of Health Economics. Jan2001, Vol. 20 Issue 1, p69-83. 15p.
  • Danovitch, Gabriel and Delmonico, Francis. “The prohibition of kidney sales and organ markets should remain”, Current Opinion in Organ Transplantation: August 2008 – Volume 13 – Issue 4 – p 386–394
  • FindLaw, “Can I Sell an Organ”,
  • Kittur DS, Hogan MM, Thukral VK, et al “Incentives for organ donation?”, Lancet, 1991; 2:1441.1991;2:1441
  • Satel, Sally. “Death’s Waiting List”,
  • “The Need Is Real: Data”,

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.

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[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

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[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

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[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