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from The Great Debate:

Five questions for America on Syria

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq

When the United States began bombing Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra positions in Syria last month, it entered into a conflict that has been grinding on for more than three years. Here are five major questions America needs to answer as the fighting unfolds in the weeks ahead:

1. What happens when the United States runs out of targets to strike? America will soon discover that there are only so many checkpoints, buildings, convoys and command-and-control structures to hit. The Islamic State is a terrorist insurgency, not a national army, so U.S. military planners are going to run out of points on a map to strike. While the group certainly does seize, hold, and administer territory, it doesn’t tend to mass troops or maintain significant administrative infrastructure yet that can be targeted from the skies.

The U.S. Air Force is excellent at striking fixed positions, but what will it do when Islamic State fighters blend seamlessly into the civilian population, like any good insurgency does when confronted by an air campaign carried out by a superior foe? Perhaps the group will take a play from Hamas’ playbook and use hospitals, mosques and schools to continue the fight -- practically daring the United States to hit them and cause civilian casualties. Its fighters are reportedly already using civilians as human shields. And despite allied efforts, the Islamic State will continue to rule its populace with brutality and coercion.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea  launches a Tomahawk cruise missile while conducting strike missions against ISIL targets from the GulfSo airstrikes will only get America so far, which leads to ...

2. Who will eventually occupy the ground? President Barack Obama has committed to a "no boots on the ground" policy for this campaign -- except, of course, for the 1,600 "advisers" in neighboring Iraq. While this is politically palatable to Americans, some ground forces must wrest control of the land from Islamic State. You can't run a counterinsurgency exclusively from the air.

from The Great Debate:

U.S. doesn’t face much threat from Syria’s air power – rebels aren’t so lucky

berk -- jet firing missile

The White House is in a difficult spot when it comes to Syria. Not only is the United States at war with Islamic State, one of President Bashar al-Assad's foes, but U.S. aircraft are also flying through the same airspace, and focused on part of the same mission,  as the Syrian Air Force.

Even stranger, President Barack Obama came close to ordering airstrikes against Assad last year after a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb. Meanwhile, opponents in Congress want the president to go farther -- either invading Syria outright or imposing a no-fly zone that would target the regime's warplanes.

from The Great Debate:

To beat Islamic State, Obama needs Iran

Masked Sunni gunmen pray during a patrol outside the city of Falluja

President Barack Obama delivered a speech Wednesday night designed for an American public that has been losing confidence in its commander in chief.  Much of his address was about attitude -- we are tough, we will act, we will prevail, but we will do all this with airpower, not boots on the ground (or not many) and in cooperation with friends and allies. This mission will not be a repeat of Afghanistan or Iraq (President George W. Bush’s wars), Obama promised, but will be more like Obama’s campaigns against al Qaeda -- don’t forget he killed Osama bin Laden! -- and the continuing strikes against radical Islamists in Somalia and Yemen.

But the president must know that the Islamic State cannot be treated like the insurgents in Somalia and Yemen. The reason this group has caused such concern is that it is not just one more localized group of violent guerrillas. It is an embryonic state that is beginning to govern large areas of the Sunni heartlands of Iraq and Syria. So it will not easily be bombed into oblivion, nor will it suffice to take out its top leader with a skillfully executed commando raid, as in Pakistan.

from The Great Debate:

In Iran talks, ‘no deal’ bests ‘bad deal’ for U.S.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program in Vienna

With only days to go before the original July 20 deadline for negotiations over the future Iran's nuclear program, there is scant sign that a breakthrough is imminent. The reason is simple: Iranian leaders’ refusal to move from what a senior Obama administration official recently described as "unworkable and inadequate positions that would not in fact assure that their program is exclusively peaceful."

The stakes of the Vienna nuclear talks could not be higher. Although the past months have witnessed the proliferation of alarming new threats in the Middle East, including the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant across Iraq and Syria, these dangers are not equal to the catastrophic, transformational consequences of the Iranian regime, the world's No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, acquiring nuclear weapons.

from The Great Debate:

How — and why — the U.S. must support Iraq

Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up inside a tent filled with mourners in Baghdad, during a funeral in Najaf A disaster is unfolding in Iraq. It is in part a result of the failed Syria and broader Middle East policies pursued by the West in the past four years.

Insurgents reportedly led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (also known as “ISIS”) have occupied Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and may be planning to push further south to the capital, Baghdad. ISIL, a largely Sunni jihadist group more radical than al Qaeda, seeks to establish an independent caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

from The Great Debate:

The religion-fueled fight in Syria

The second round of peace talks in Geneva between representatives of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria and rebel forces has ended with both sides blaming each other for the lack of progress. Beyond the finger-pointing, however, lies a growing danger to the goal of a negotiated settlement. The civil war’s religious divides are widening, making compromise unthinkable.

Representatives of the Syrian regime went to Geneva solely with the hope of convincing the opposition to let President Bashar al-Assad stay in power so he can forge an alliance against jihadist forces fighting in Syria, most notably the al Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Their argument -- one that many, including former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, have made -- was that Assad is better than any likely alternative.

from The Great Debate:

Assad’s terror farce at the Geneva talks

Just days before the most recent Syrian peace talks in Geneva began, a report detailing “industrial-scale” killing in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons revealed the nature of his government. Despite this setback, the regime continues to claim that it is only fighting terrorists.

While their rhetoric is convenient, the reality is that only one side of the Syrian negotiations is actively fighting al Qaeda – the opposition. Though Assad has the capacity to attack extremists, from the spring of 2011 until today he has chosen to target civilians instead.

from David Rohde:

Dooming the Syria talks before they begin

The United States won a short-term diplomatic victory over Iran this week. Under intense pressure from American officials, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdrew an invitation for Iranian officials to attend the Syria peace conference.

Disinviting Tehran is the latest example of the Obama administration’s continual search for easy, risk-free solutions in Syria. As the conflict destabilizes the region, however, Washington must finally face the hard choice: Either compromise with Iran, or decisively support and arm the rebels.

from The Great Debate:

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference -- which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players -- will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region -- not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

from David Rohde:

How 2013′s partisanship hurt us abroad, as well as at home

The furious partisan debate that erupted this week after a New York Times investigation questioned the central tenet of the Republican assault on the White House regarding Benghazi was a fitting end to 2013.

The lengthy article revealed that the State Department and CIA’s intense focus on al Qaeda caused officials to miss the threat posed by local militias. David Kirkpatrick’s reporting showed that Libya’s rebels appreciated the U.S. support in helping oust Muammar Gaddafi, but were strongly influenced by decades of anger at Washington’s support for dictators in the region.

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