Interview with The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson



On Wednesday afternoon, I attended some panel discussions hosted by the Premio Gabriel García Márquez de Periodismo, a yearly festival that celebrates Spanish-language journalism. The list of panelists included Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker, whose work I started following after I read his biography of Che Guevara. He’s a seasoned journalist who has covered Latin American politics for decades, writing profiles of people like Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, the King of Spain, and Gabo himself. He’s also covered conflicts around the world in Africa and the Middle East, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given his experience in the region, I wanted to get his take on US decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He was in a bit of a rush, but was kind enough to give me a short interview after the panel discussion. Here’s what he said: Continue reading


Civilians in Syria and R2P

Michael Zenko of the CFR argues that none of the plans to intervene in Syria actually address the causes of civilian deaths in the conflict.

He first takes issue with the claim that Assad has “massacred 100,000 of his own people,” something I myself noted as false over three months ago.

The piece cites the following statistics, based on numbers from the SOHR – a group of anti-regime activists:

Numbers from SOHR

Numbers from SOHR

He then says:

This grim account is not the Syrian civil war that U.S. policymakers and pundits reference when proposing and debating military intervention options. You will not hear senators assert that Syrian rebels have “massacred” over 45,000 Syrian regime or paramilitary forces. When Assad responded to the largely peaceful demonstrations in 2011 with brutality and extrajudicial detentions, Syrian rebels took up arms against the state. Their primary objectives are to capture and control additional territory and resources and, ultimately, to assure that Assad is removed from power, whether through diplomacy or warfare.

After listing the methods in which those 40,000 + civilians were killed (at least those killed by Assad’s forces), Zenko then explains the types of strategies available for hindering those methods – none of which appear in the intervention proposals.

The reason these specific countermeasures are never proposed is that they entail a level of cost, commitment, and risk that neither pundits nor policymakers are willing to accept, including the unmentionable “boots on the ground.” Rather, intervention proposals focus on using stand-off weapons against largely static “regime targets” in an effort to coerce Assad to change his behavior, or enforcing (or just announcing) a no-fly-zone, which would be largely irrelevant. As President Obama stated in June: “The fact of the matter is for example, 90 percent of the deaths that have taken place haven’t been because of air strikes by the Syrian air force.”

The types of interventions that proponents have endorsed for Syria are often based on deep misunderstandings of how U.S. force was used on behalf of humanitarian missions in the past, and have almost nothing to do with how Syrian non-combatants are actually being killed. As someone who has been researching and writing for a decade about how military force can be used to save lives, I find the unwillingness to confront the realities of the conflict in Syria puzzling and disheartening. Either saving Syrian non-combatants from a violent death is so important to the United States and the international community that it necessitates an effective military response, or it isn’t. Intervention proposals that consciously ignore or downplay the amount and type of force needed to protect civilians are just wishful thinking.

This, of course, seems rather separate from the debate over weather specific, limited military action would be effective in achieving the more narrow goal of upholding the international norm against the use of chemical weapons.

WSJ: U.N. Pushes Back at U.S. Calls to Abort Syria Inspection Mission

The WSJ reports:

United Nations weapons inspectors arrived at one of the sites of last week’s presumed chemical-weapons attacks outside Damascus, spurning U.S. calls for the team to stop their mission as American officials said they are inching closer to a decision for a military strike…

U.S. officials told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that it was no longer safe for the inspectors to remain in Syria and that their mission was pointless, said a person familiar with the matter.

Although President Barack Obama remains undecided on military action, the U.S. request for the U.N. team to withdraw echoed its moves before it attacked Iraq in 2003, when it asked a U.N. inspection team in Baghdad to withdraw for its own safety as it prepared for military operations.

The US is claiming that the UN inspectors wouldn’t “be able to collect viable evidence due to the passage of time and damage from subsequent shelling.”

The UN disagrees:

The U.N. has held firm against the U.S., with one official saying evidence of a chemical attack would still exist. Chemical traces could be found in survivors and vegetation for months, chemical-weapons experts said. The U.N. team in Damascus was there to investigate a suspected chemical-weapons attack conducted months earlier in northern Syria.

New Statistics on Death Toll in Syria

A new UN report estimates 93,000 deaths have occurred in Syria’s civil war to date.

Who is being killed?

From Reuters:

One of the monitoring groups, the British-based, pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said on Thursday it had now confirmed at least 98,000 deaths in the conflict, but that the total figure could exceed 130,000.

It said the confirmed toll included 25,040 Syrian soldiers and security personnel, and 17,107 pro-Assad militiamen.

Other killings are likely to have occurred without being documented, said the U.N. study, carried out by the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, a U.S.-based non-profit organization.

Keep in mind that the group reporting that more than 42,000 people killed by the rebels is a pro-opposition monitoring group.  The opposition is itself admitting that the rebels are responsible for about 45% of the deaths in Syria.

These figures don’t, however, tell us much about the civilian death toll and how the opposition and Assad’s forces differ when it comes to the targeting of non-combatants.

Steve Coll; FP

Steve Coll write up a good review of Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars and NYT’s Mark Mazetti’s The Way of the Knife.


Foreign Policy has a post about a recent study (which I mentioned a while back) which examines the relationship between American and Chinese arms sales and the democratic nature of the countries purchasing their weapons.

Soysa looked at U.S. and Chinese arms transfers to Africa from 1989 to 2006, using data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. They found no statistical correlation between China and the types of regimes it supplied with weapons, while U.S. arms shipments were slightly negatively correlated with democracy. In plain English, China actually turned out to be less likely to sell weapons to dictators than America was.

The ideological make-up of the Syrian rebels

From the NYT:

Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.

Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of…

Among the most extreme groups is the notorious Al Nusra Front, the Qaeda-aligned force declared a terrorist organization by the United States, but other groups share aspects of its Islamist ideology in varying degrees…

The Islamist character of the opposition reflects the main constituency of the rebellion, which has been led since its start by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, mostly in conservative, marginalized areas. The descent into brutal civil war has hardened sectarian differences, and the failure of more mainstream rebel groups to secure regular arms supplies has allowed Islamists to fill the void and win supporters…

When the armed rebellion began, defectors from the government’s staunchly secular army formed the vanguard. The rebel movement has since grown to include fighters with a wide range of views, including Qaeda-aligned jihadis seeking to establish an Islamic emirate, political Islamists inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and others who want an Islamic-influenced legal code like that found in many Arab states.

My sense is that there are no seculars,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, of the Institute for the Study of War, who has made numerous trips to Syria in recent months to interview rebel commanders.

US Cable Blames Israel For Stalling Peace Agreement (1975)

A cable available in Wikileaks’ “Public Library of US Diplomacy” shows that the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Atkins, believed in January 1975 that Israel was the primary impediment to peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As the Jerusalem Post recently put it, the cable “concluded that it was Israel’s stubborn position that was holding back peace.”

The cable suggested that Israel was “disingenuous” when it claimed that Arab states would never agree to give security guarantees for Israel, and thus couldn’t relinquish control of the territories occupied in the ’67 war. It specifically points to the “Arab decision in Algiers to give de facto  recognition to Israel in its 1967 borders” and that this decision gave Israelis “almost everything they have ever asked for since 1948.”

Included in the cable was the claim that even Egypt and Syria, Israel’s primary adversaries at the time, “yearn for peace.”

A rarely mentioned event in the peace process is the January 1976 UN Security Council Resolution, backed by the PLO and the Arab states with the Soviet Union, calling for a two-state solution based UN Resolution 242 and the international consensus, vetoed by the US.

This is the last portion of the cable:

Courtesy of Wikileaks

Courtesy of Wikileaks