Monthly Archives: October 2012

Arm the “good” Syrian rebels

There didn’t appear to be much difference between the two candidates at the recent presidential debate on the issue of Syria conflict. Both President Obama and Governor Romney were like-minded (Romney’s bizarre geographical gaffe aside) in expressing support for arming, in the President’s words, the “forces of moderation” opposing the Syrian government. 

Each candidate also advocated working closely with our allies in the region. Alongside Turkey and Israel, Governor Romney cited Qatar and Saudi Arabia as useful partners. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been at the forefront of efforts to aid Syria’s rebels thus far, aided by limited logistical and intelligence support offered by the Obama administration.

The problem, however, is that neither the Qataris or Saudis are primarily interested in supporting “moderate” Syrian rebels and widespread media reports indicate that they channel aid primarily to “black flag” Islamic radicals, who are increasingly flocking to the region.

The Obama administration and its successor need to stop offering blind support to Qatari and Saudi efforts in the region and take matters more into American hands. What we are witnessing in Syria is not simply a two sided conflict between an oppressive dictator and the forces of Jeffersonian democracy, but rather a multilayered conflict with many factions. In broad strokes, however, we should think of there being three, rather than two, sides: the government and its supporters, radical Islamists, and the more-reasonable “rest.” 

As abhorrent as the Syrian government is to our interests and our conscience, the alternative of radical Islam is worse. Yet, rather than throwing extensive material support behind those opposed to both secular and religious dictatorship, US leaders dither at best and empower our enemies at worst.

It is hard not to feel like we are making the same mistakes that we made in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In that case, the US provide large amounts of aid to Afghani “freedom fighters” — aid which was channeled almost exclusively through Pakistan, a country with interests as dissimilar from ours at the time as those of Saudia Arabia and Qatar are now. After the Soviets left and the government of Afghanistan fell, the legacy of American-backed Pakistani military support for extremists eventually led to rise of the Taliban and its allies at the expense of moderate Afghani factions.

There remain justifiable fears that US military aid to any Syrian rebels could find its way into the hands of jihadists. Introducing new types of weaponry that aren’t currently found in the area would, indeed, be a bad idea. Would-be terrorists, however, such as those recently captured smuggling weapons out of Syria in order to conduct terrorist acts in Jordan, already have access to a variety of light weapons and will continue to in the future.

We need to think about the shape of a post-Assad Syria and ask ourselves who will stand up to the forces of Islamic extremism. If we do not choose to step up our efforts to help the “forces of moderation” in Syria and end our misplaced faith in our Saudi and Qatari “partners,” the answer might be no one.

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Judicialize the island disputes!

As the exciting presidential race reaches the home stretch, I thought I might write about an issue of keen interest to all Americans — namely, the status of the small, uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku island chain in the East China Sea.  Okay, maybe it’s not the most important issue to Americans, but, at the moment, it is the dominant political story in China, who call the islands the “Diaoyu” and Japan, who call them “Senkaku.”

Last Friday, the state-controlled Chinese Daily bought a two page ad in the New York Times and Washington Post displaying a picturesque shot of the largest of the islands and a list of all of the main arguments for Chinese ownership of them.  Apparently the Chinese government would like the inform the American people of their grievances.  Why?  Well, the island issue might seem small, but it brings along with it interesting questions about the U.S. future role in the region and the viability of international conflict resolution mechanisms.

The competing claims between the two countries boil down to somewhat obscure historical arguments and counterarguments.  Essentially, the Chinese (and Taiwanese — who recently had a water cannon battle with Japan over the issue) claim that historical records show a long association between the islands and the mainland.  Meanwhile, Japanese government officials argue that the islands were explored and incorporated by Japan in 1895 with no clear protest then, or after, by Chinese officials.  The Japanese argue that it was not until oil and gas resources were discovered in the surrounding waters in the early seventies that Chinese officials discovered a claim to the islands.

Whether we like it or not, the United States is caught up in the issue as well.  Since the United States occupied Japan after the Second World War, it largely determined what Japanese territories were to be returned to other countries and what territories belonged to Japan (something the Chinese government and press now like to call “backroom deals.”)  Not surprisingly, Mao’s China was not consulted in these decisions and the disputed islands were retained under Japanese administration.

Nowadays, despite the official declarations of neutrality on the issue, the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Security and Cooperation suggests an obligation by United States to stand by Japan in defending any territories under its administrative control.  Does that mean that the US will somehow get sucked into an armed conflict?   No, not likely. However, if Japanese leaders perceive even tacit US backing, it will encourage continued Japanese intransigence on the issue.

The United States can be constructively involved by urging both sides to seek international arbitration of the issue.  Japan has actually already sought in recent months to bring another dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) involving islands controlled by South Korea.   If the Japanese feel that in the South Korea case that their cause is just and strong enough to pursue through international legal mechanisms, then U.S. officials might be successful in urging a similar path in pursuing their case against China.  At the same time, if the Chinese government finds it important enough to curry international sympathy and favor on the issue that they put out ads in American newspaper, perhaps they might be persuaded of the symbolic importance that successful international arbitration would provide.

The problem, unfortunately, is that U.S. has always had a troubled relationship with international institutions like the ICJ and lesser-known, but older, Permanent Court of Arbitration.  These courts have generally found against the United States and the US has mostly reacted by ignoring the rulings. It is hard for U.S. officials to promote conflict resolution mechanisms they have expressed little respect for in the past.

Nevertheless, American officials need to press for some sort of international mediation or arbitration of the dispute.  The alternatives are likely to increase tensions in the Pacific for years to come.  While a new age of peaceful international jurisprudence is not likely to tame realpolitik and nationalism in the region anytime soon, it will be a sad signal for future Pacific cooperation if international institutions or mediation fail to play a role in resolving the matter.