Opinion

Jack Shafer

War without end: The U.S. may still be fighting in Syria in 2024, 2034, 2044 . . .

Jack Shafer
Sep 24, 2014 22:51 UTC

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This must be what perpetual war looks like.

In a Pentagon briefing yesterday, Army Lieutenant General Bill Mayville called the cruise missiles and bombs flung at targets in Syria “the beginning of a credible and sustainable persistent campaign.” How long will the campaign last? “I would think of it in terms of years,” Mayville responded.

Although the bombs exploded on Syrian soil, they didn’t target Bashar al-Assad’s battered, murderous regime. The bombs were addressed to Syria’s enemy, the Islamic State, a nascent nation that has pledged to topple both Iraq and Syria, as well as Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, and parts of southern Turkey, and erect a caliphate on the parcel.

But in attacking Syria’s enemy, the United States wasn’t looking to make friends with Syria. President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down in 2011, and it was only last year that the United States was prepared to bomb Syria for having crossed the chemical-weapons “red line” to kill its own citizens. Not that the United States is remarkably choosey about which nations it counts among its allies. Among the Middle East nations joining with the United States to strike Syria is Qatar, which has allowed one of its sheikhs to raise funds for an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. As you know, the United States is at war with Al Qaeda in all of its flavors, including the Syria-based Khorasan Group, upon which U.S. bombs fell this week. The Khorasan Group is said to be plotting attacks on the United States and Europe.

Our perpetual war is complicated, however, by the fact that the Islamic State is the sworn enemy of Al Qaeda, from which it split earlier this year because it couldn’t play nice with Al Qaeda’s other affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also fighting the Assad regime. Or, to look at it another way, the enemies of America’s enemies are not automatically America’s friends; and even America’s friends, which can be permissive about the flow of money to Al Qaeda, aren’t necessarily America’s friends either.

America has allies in Syria’s civil war, of course, including Harakat Hazm, part of the Free Syrian Army. Harakat Hazm is fighting Assad, but it has also fought alongside America’s enemy Jabhat al-Nusra, which has not disqualified it from receiving U.S. weapons and training. Harakat Hazm took exception to the American-led bombing of Syria in a statement, calling it an “external intervention” and “an attack on the revolution,” according to a Los Angeles Times report. So Harakat Hazm, America’s friend, which fought with America’s enemy against Syria—which is neither friend nor enemy—objects to the fact that America bombed Syria in pursuit of the Islamic State, which is also Harakat Hazm’s enemy. Meanwhile, the militant Shiite group Hezbollah is drone-bombing Jabat al-Nusrat along the Lebanon-Syria border at the same time Israel is downing Syrian jets.

This month’s ultimate enemy — the Islamic State

Jack Shafer
Aug 26, 2014 00:42 UTC

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At an Aug. 21 Pentagon press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed that the Islamic State “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”

Perhaps sensing that his comparison hadn’t reached sufficiently hyperbolic velocity to escape earth orbit, Hagel immediately amended himself.

“Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything,” he said [emphasis added], thereby vaulting the brutal Islamic State over the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese, and all other entrants into the Number 1 slot in our ever-churning power-ranking of international enemies.

Why journalists are like cops and firefighters

Jack Shafer
Sep 13, 2013 21:45 UTC

When some of our friends in academia read the top news about Syria on a website or in a newspaper, they do so through a lens ground by UCLA political scientist John Zaller. In a 2003 paper (pdf), Zaller analyzed two modes of news production that journalists often employ. While working in patrol mode, the press surveys the landscape for trouble and writes up what it finds, like a cop walking a beat and writing the occasional ticket or making the routine arrest. In alarm mode, aroused reporters respond to calls for help by lighting up the gumball, tossing it on the roof, and peeling out for the crime scene, the building afire, or the battleground.

I simplify Zaller here, just as he modified the patrol/alarm idea of two other political scientists on his way to his insight. But the simplification stands: The journalistic transmission knows two basic gears: slow or fast; monitoring from afar or fully entrenched; casual or obsessed. The press has long treated Syria as just another stop on its Middle East patrol, even though it has regarded massacres as legitimate tools of governance for decades, as this BBC timeline indicates. The migration of the two-year-old Syrian civil war from the back pages to the front, where it now amasses acres of newspaper coverage, can be attributed in equal part to the chemical attacks of late August in the western suburbs of Damascus and the puncturing of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. There’s nothing like chemical weapons dumped on innocents followed by a U.S. president’s threat to drop bombs to change the location of the loudest alarm.

I’m not disparaging anything that’s alarmed-based, just acknowledging that it best describes contemporary news coverage, a sentiment shared by many of the scholars cited in a new book by University of California, Davis, political scientist Amber E. Boydstun, Making the News: Politics, The Media, and Agenda Setting. Boydstun argues that in practice, the press follows neither the alarm model nor the patrol model, but oscillates between the two. “[N]ews outlets tend to only patrol those neighborhoods covered by beats or triggered by alarms,” she writes. Woodward and Bernstein responded to a minor alarm story, went into patrol mode, and as other news organizations followed, the patrol coverage escalated to alarm mode again and again.

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