My friend and fellow blogger Brandon Valeriano is a much better security studies scholar than I am. He’s written a great piece today about Russia’s involvement in Syria, and in particular how unimpressive that involvement is so far relative to the breathless hyperbole appearing in the American press.
Some of this, of course, is press coverage in the context of an American presidential race. Republican candidates, none of whom have any credentials on foreign policy, are swift to criticize the Obama administration for making the US “look weak” and for “capitulating” to Russia. The narrative of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war plays into that fable well, and helps win votes from tribal Republicans. It has no bearing on reality, but neither does most of the rest of the campaign. For those of us interested in the world as it is, we can safely ignore the three-ring circus and look instead to what we already know about international conflict and what that might tell us about the US-Russia strategic balance. Continue reading
This New York Times piece on Russia’s use of power in Syria was so notable for its hyperbole and exaggeration, it woke me from my RI slumber. As my old friend from UIC, Evan McKenzie noted “For the US media exaggerating Russia’s military power is a reflex.” It truly is in this case, the article is so bad that it could have appeared in Russia Today. Lets cover it by using the NYTimes’ own words. Mine are in italics
There is a literature out there about norms of sovereignty, that tends to draw on grand historical narratives and old, well-trodden examples to support its arguments. But rarely do we see norms of sovereignty addressed in discussion of current international politics. We see the term sovereignty used in a unidimensional way, as a stand-in for related concepts, such as internal control or international legal personhood. But we tend not to see the idea that norms of sovereignty change over time examined in the context of contemporary events, nor do we often ask what effects current events and political decisions are likely to have on norms. But to the extent that norms of sovereignty define the context of international politics, we should be asking how current events might affect them. There follows a series of three posts to help remedy this lacuna. This post is about policy toward Syria, the second is about Russia’s recent tendency to nibble off corners of its neighbours, and the third is about China’s maritime claims.
Two weeks ago Bashar Assad cruised to an easy and expected victory in Syria’s presidential elections. Why bother, when nobody sees the election as credible? Because it adds, however marginally, to the impression that Assad is the legitimate ruler of Syria. We would expect him to try to reinforce this impression. We would not necessarily expect the United States government to do so. But US policy during the chemical weapons crisis last year did just this.
This is the third and last post on the recent exchange between al-Qaeda and the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The first part introduced al-Qaeda’s arguments against ISIL, and the second deals with ISIL’s attempt to tell a different construction of its past relations with al-Qaeda so that its current actions could not be construed as an act of rebellion against jihadi superior. This post presents ISIL’s effort to shift the blame for the infighting to al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Beyond the fascinating story of how jihadi fight and what set of principles and justifications they use in the public side of their fight, the conflict I discuss here as important because it underscores the divisions within the jihadi camp. It is easy to classify all jihadis together as comprising one entity. Easy but wrong, and likely to result in a sub-optimal response to the jihadi threat. Good counter-jihadism requires understanding of nuances and that would never come without comprehending diversity and internal conflict within the jihadi camp. So, back to ISIL …
Given how powerful the symbol of unity is, both with regard to the Muslim ummah and more specifically within the ranks of the mijahideen, ISIL portrayed the Islamic State as the embodiment of unity. In fact, it claimed that for the sake of maintaining unity it had been patient and endured considerable costs as rival Islamist groups continuously tried drawing it into conflict (no real appreciation of course to ISIL’s own role in generating the backlash from other Islamist groups). But according to ISIL the magnitude of the change al-Qaeda experienced required that it think beyond the important value of unity. It maintained that the escalation of the conflict resulted from to the deviation of al Qaeda’s General Command from the correct path. Framing al-Qaeda as the one who transgressed again the State, rather the other way around, is central to the rhetorical strategy of ISIL. It declares that while it remained loyal to the Islamically-sanctioned path, al-Qaeda overreached. Put this way, ISIL can attribute the infighting within the jihadi camp to the actions of its rivals and clear itself from any wrongdoing. Framing itself as the just player and others as responsible to the rift shapes ISIL’s suggested, and essentially the only legitimate solution: since al-Zawahiri is responsible for the bloodshed, it is in his power to stop it by changing his ways. Specifically, ISIL demands that he would annul the acceptance of JN’s pledge of allegiance and renounce al-Qaeda’s authority within the Syrian arena.
Over the past couple of weeks we had lots of excitement here at Haverford with a commencement controversy that got us (unwelcome?) media attention like never before. But now it is time to finally focus on research. As part of my work on a book dealing with the relationship between al-Qaeda and its franchises I spent recent days going over some fascinating statements made by leaders of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the past couple of months. The exchange is primarily between al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and ISIL’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. As a reminder, in early February al-Qaeda announced that it is disowning ISIL, keeping Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) its official franchise in Syria. Since then the conflict between the groups escalated, both through rhetoric in messages posted online and through violent clashes on the ground in Syria. The battle of statements is fascinating and deserves to be treated at length as it sheds light not only on the heart of the conflict but also on the discourse that is deemed legitimate in an intra-jihadi rivalry. In this post I will present al-Qaeda’s arguments for distancing itself from ISIL and add some analysis of its statements. In a couple of days I will return with the Islamic State’s response which is even juicier. I apologize that the post is not edited properly and wave my foreigner card and time constraints as my excuses.
Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) explains the decision to distance itself from ISIL as the result of the difference in approaches. It maintains that it is focused on fighting against the US and does not want to fall into engagement with ‘side skirmishes.’ Al-Qaeda seeks to unite the ummah and establish the Caliphate. These objectives require care not to shed innocents’ blood and the projection of a positive image; they cannot be accomplished if the group is viewed as seeking domination and as usurping others’ rights. As implied, ISIL, in contrast, wastes energies on secondary priorities, failing to identify accurately the central threat to the ummah, and consequently its strategy is bound to fail. The Islamic State is also committing a serious mistake as its aggressiveness severely damage its reputation and as a result alienate the public whose support it requires.