Supreme Reader

The Buzz

Almost every major political figure has a social-media presence today. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov is an Instagram addict, as is Syria’s first family. Hugo Chavez was a prolific tweeter, and Fidel Castro blogs occasionally. Iowa senator Chuck Grassley live-tweets University of Northern Iowa Panthers women’s volleyball matches. Yet nobody’s quite as strange as Iran’s Supreme Tweeter, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He’s on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, even though the last two have been blocked in Iran. And while all three accounts are almost certainly managed by his office rather than the Rahbar himself, they still have the remarkably ad hoc and disorganized feel you’d expect from a seventy-four-year-old cleric learning the digital ropes. He uses hashtags poorly. He offers opinions almost at random, dredging up lines from decades-old speeches without explaining why they bear relevance to his audience today. He’s translated into imperfect English, and abbreviates words like a teenager—“Do ur scientific works in a way that Westerners learn #Farsi 2 read ur articles.Farsi has such capacity that can Xpress most subtle sciences”. And like Grassley, he enjoys volleyball. The Ayatollah begs to be hipper.

Yet in the last few days, the Ayatollah’s social-media team has mounted something like a PR campaign, with the apparent goal of showing the world that Khamenei is no medieval scold, but a modern Renaissance man, a voracious reader and a real intellectual. And so there have been two bursts, on multiple platforms, of posts about the Leader’s love for literature. He’d like you to know that he favors novels over nonfiction—“The Historical narrative [...] can show photos of a city taken from a 10 thousand feet altitude. On the other hand, in an artistic narrative you can well imagine that you have got into a city.” And he’d like you to know that he’s read a lot of them, and he names a handful as proof—“I have read plenty of novels that relate to the events of different centuries. I have also read some very old novels. For instance I have read the Divine Comedy, Amir Arsalan, One Thousand and One Nights.” He doesn’t like all novels, of course—“some #novels r mere fantasy&have no message&shouldn’t be read,” but he wants to remind you that nobody stops him from reading them anyway—“Although I’ve also read those novels since no 1 has ever told what to read”. He also would like to to know when he reads them—on the bus and in other spare moments. He brags that this has enabled him to read “maybe hundreds of books.” And he knows “many ppl who’ve done the same.”

Yet it’s not enough for you to know what a great mind Khamenei is—he wants you to emulate him. “We should habituate ourselves&our #children 2read #books;eg 2read books when they want 2go 2bed or hours of Fridays & summer #holidays.” “Once they get home, all working ppl should spend at least half an hour on reading;lots of works can be read during these 30min of free times”. And this is how all of Khamenei’s hobbies and habits are. They aim to humanize him, to show his personality, but without failing to show him as great. He reads like you, yes, but he reads more, he reads it with more taste, and he reads it with more discipline. Perhaps next week he’ll tell us of his great humility.

The irony in Khamenei’s self-promotion is deep. For while “no 1 has ever told [him] what to read,” his regime tells his subjects what to read. The internet is heavily and meticulously censored. Books are often banned—including some of the classics. And Iran’s greatest contribution to world culture, its poetry, faces censorship. And so it should be no surprise that the leader of a country with a deep literary culture and a deep sense of nationalism still would pick a foreign novel—Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which he brands “a miracle in the world of novel writing”—as his favorite. Khamenei has seen to it that many great Persian novels—like Sadegh Hedayat’s mesmerizing The Blind Owl—are kept off the presses. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rowhani, has dropped hints about easing controls, and Twitter and Facebook were partially unblocked yesterday. But until then, Iranian readers face another year of chains on the galleys with Jean Valjean and Ali Khamenei.

TopicsSociety RegionsIran

Russia's Syria Deal Is Not Real

The Buzz

It’s time for a reality check. Russia’s proposed deal for Syria to abandon its chemical weapons arsenal is hardly, in President Obama’s words, a “significant breakthrough.” The president said last week that the initiative could avert American strikes on Syria “if it’s real.” But it isn’t. Rather, the Russian plan will not work—and Obama knows it. Yet he and his administration have welcomed this initiative. Why?

A senior State Department official recently said that any proposed deal must be “swift”, “real”, and “verifiable.” The administration has also declared that it must be “comprehensive” and “enforceable.” For many reasons, it can be none of these things.

The deal won’t be swift. As Dina Esfandiari has pointed out, even if Assad were to fully declare all of his chemical weapons stockpiles—a big if—it is unlikely that this could be done in the seven-day timeframe proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry, who rejected Assad’s argument that Syria should have 30 days to do so. Destroying a chemical arsenal as large as Assad’s, estimated by some to be the world’s largest, “doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it is more realistic to talk in years than in months.”

The plan won’t be enforceable, because Russia has refused to agree to any deal that is. Although the U.S., Britain, and France concur that any chemical inspection regime for Syria must be legally binding and backed by the authorization to use force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in response to Syrian noncompliance, Russia has already objected to a draft Security Council resolution to this effect. So administration officials changed their tune on Friday, saying that Obama would accept a UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) not backed by the threat of force.

Although Russia and the U.S. have since agreed to file a UNSCR under Chapter VII, any violations warranting punishment would be referred back to the Security Council, where Russia could block the use of force. As Secretary Kerry noted, “Use of force is clearly one of the options that may or may not be available to the Security Council" (italics mine). But even with Chapter VII authority, the middling American and international reactions to the regime’s previous alleged instances of chemical weapons use—to the extent that there has been any reaction—would hardly convince Assad that violation of the deal would be inescapably met with force.

No wonder Assad immediately embraced the plan. What’s more, he is attempting to milk it for all it’s worth. Russian President Vladimir Putin said a deal could work only if the U.S. and its relevant allies “tell us they’re giving up their plan to use force against Syria.” Apparently this is insufficient for Assad, who said in an interview on Thursday that Syria won’t relinquish its chemical weapons unless the U.S. stops arming the rebels, which the CIA began doing in recent weeks, according to Syrian figures and American officials.

A deal along the lines of the Russian proposal will also not be comprehensive, verifiable, or real, owing to the fact that the Assad regime and opposition forces each control territory in Syria, and many areas are hotly contested. Although a CRS report released on Thursday states that “U.S. officials have expressed confidence that chemical weapons stocks in Syria are secured by the Asad regime”, on-the-ground inspection will be necessary to verify this; that is, they are needed if the goal of the plan is to verifiably rid Syria of chemical weapons—as opposed to merely depriving the Syrian government of them.

That some element(s) of the opposition might possess chemical weapons is not beyond the realm of possibility. In May, Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Enquiry on Syria, suggested in an interview that the rebels had used sarin gas, a claim quickly rejected by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Gwyn Winfield, the editorial director of CBRNe World, argues that the rebels possess the experience and perhaps also the delivery capability to launch a chemical attack, and that it is possible that the rebels may "have overrun an arms dump which had some of the [chemical] agent" or that a government "defector brought a limited amount with him." On Friday, Turkish prosecutors alleged that Syrian rebel groups were seeking materials to produce sarin gas for the Al Nusra Front and the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade (both groups are unaffiliated with the FSA). From the first instance of alleged chemical weapons use, in Aleppo this March, to the most recent, in Ghoutta on August 21, the Syrian government has accused the rebels of using chemical weapons, as has Russia. Secretary Kerry did not contest Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's contention that there may be one or two chemical weapons sites in rebel-held locations.

Will inspectors even attempt to enter rebel-held territory? If chemical disarmament in Syria is to be truly comprehensive, then they must. (After all, Russia and Syria have charged that there are chemical weapons in these areas.) The plan envisions that both government and opposition forces with facilitate the inspectors’ work.

This puts the anti-Assad opposition in a serious bind. If a deal is reached and weapons inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are sent to Syria, will they be granted access to rebel-held areas, which comprise a majority of the country? What incentive will the rebels have to facilitate a verification effort that, if successful, would significantly reduce the likelihood of international armed intervention in their favor? None. But they also would not want to be seen as obstructing the inspectors’ efforts and, by extension, sabotaging diplomatic attempts to resolve the conflict. Whether or not the opposition concocts some reason to deny the inspectors access or obstruct their movement, they would have an incentive to do so.

Unsurprisingly, the opposition slammed the deal. The leader of the FSA, General Salim Idriss, already categorically rejected the plan. He insisted that there are “no chemical weapons on territory controlled by the Free Syrian Army,” but declared that his forces would “not hinder the work of UN monitors” if they sought to enter rebel-controlled territory. The Syrian National Coalition has also opposed it, saying in a statement that “Crimes against humanity cannot be absolved through political concessions, or surrendering the weapons used to commit them.”

Nonetheless, even if the rebels do not currently control chemical weapons, government-held territory where chemical weapons are based could fall into their hands before the weapons are removed or destroyed. As the recent CRS report notes, “The nature and recent course of the conflict in Syria suggests that rapid changes in control over critical military facilities may occur.” And if rebels do possess chemical weapons—now or prospectively—these weapons could subsequently fall into government hands if the regime makes territorial gains.

There are also many other reasons why a deal can’t work on an operational level, particularly because it would have to be implemented in an active warzone, but you get the point. So what could explain the administration’s embrace of it?

One potential explanation is that Obama really does want to strike Syria, and is attempting to build political support for doing so. By pursuing this diplomatic path—which he knows is likely to fail—the president can make the case that all peaceful options have been exhausted and that he is resorting to force as a last resort. This could help shift opinion at home, both in Congress and amongst the American people, as well as internationally, particularly among U.S. allies. It provides time to whip together much-needed votes on the Hill for authorizing force—if there ever is a vote.

Another possible explanation is that the administration doesn’t know what it will do next, and sees Russia’s proposal as a way to just buy time and determine its next move. It can be tempting to try to make sense of individual actions by situating them within the context of some larger, preconceived strategy. But we should keep in mind that there might be no overarching game plan here. Many aspects of how the administration has responded to the Syrian crisis so far are certainly consistent with this.

Or maybe Obama just wants a break. By pursuing Russia’s proposal, the administration has embarked down a road to nowhere. Yet it is difficult to know how long of a road it will be, or what might transpire along the way. It seems plausible that Obama hopes it will be quite long—prolonging the time during which the ball is not in his court—or that it will hit a dead-end upon reaching nowhere. Perhaps he wants both.

The president seems to want to wipe his hands of this whole mess. This was clearly illustrated when he told reporters on Thursday that he is shifting his focus to domestic priorities and leaving Secretary Kerry to handle Syria talks. "Even as we have been spending a lot of time on the Syria issue [...] it is still important to recognize that we've got a lot more stuff to do here," he said. Instead of Syria, the president will now focus on immigration, budget, and healthcare issues. Unlike with regards to Syria, he might make meaningful progress in these areas.

Image: Flickr/Victor1558. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsGlobal Governance RegionsSyria

TNI’s Best of the Web For 9/16

The Buzz

Starting today, TNI’s Managing Editor, Harry Kazianis, will select the day’s top foreign policy, national security, and defense articles for your reading pleasure. From the latest crisis in Syria or the Middle East, to China’s rise, to important matters of U.S. foreign policy, TNI has you covered.

What you need to know for Monday 9/16:

Foreign Policy: John McCain Will Attack Vladimir Putin in the Pages of Pravda

Foreign Affairs: Open Source, Open World - “In the late 1960s, technology companies realized that they could sell the programs that they had been giving away with their computers. For software developers, though, that was a betrayal of their field's values: collaboration and sharing. Here's how the technologists have worked to bring those principles back.”

The Washington Post: U.N. Inspectors Find ‘Convincing’ Evidence of Chemical Attack Outside Damascus

The New York Times: South Korean Troops Kill Man Trying to Cross Border

The Washington Post: How the United States, Russia Arrived at Deal on Syria’s Chemical Weapons

CNN: Japan Shuts Down Last Nuclear Reactor -- For Now


Threats of Force Don't Always Help

Paul Pillar

No matter how the next chapters of the Syrian chemical weapons story play out, a conclusion repeatedly being drawn from the story is that threats of military force work. Both those who have an innate fondness for the making (and executing) of such threats and the Obama administration—eager to describe its handling of the Syrian issue as a success—have their separate reasons for pushing this conclusion. Expect to hear it a lot in the coming days.

The conclusion is a simple one with intuitive appeal, flowing naturally to many people ever since as children they witnessed schoolyard bullies getting their way by threatening to beat up other kids. The sequence of events over the past month does make it appear that the threatened use of U.S. military force was a leading reason for the departures that Syria and Russia took over the past week regarding chemical weapons (although Eliot Cohen offers an interesting challenge to this view, noting other important factors that shaped the Russian and Syrian decisions). The danger of the commonly accepted conclusion comes from promoting a simple belief that “threats work” without considering all of the other reasons that lead them to work or not to work, and then to apply that belief to situations where they probably will not work. The situation most often invoked, of course, is Iran and the issue of its nuclear program. The simplistic belief about the supposed universal efficacy of threats of military force thus accentuates an already widely held and mistaken assumption that the more that Iranians fear a military attack the more likely they are to make concessions about their nuclear activities.

A large corpus of scholarly work has addressed the subject of military threats and sought-after political or diplomatic outcomes, a subject that usually comes under the heading of coercive diplomacy. This research by political scientists has not arrived at some single grand conclusion that military threats do (or don't) work. Instead, the research has concerned the numerous conditions and variables that increase or decrease the chance they will work. The political scientists have had plenty of material to examine; successful and unsuccessful examples of the use of threats can be found throughout history. This is true both of threats of armed force that never materialized and ones that did. In modern U.S. history, for example, the Vietnam War and especially the air war against North Vietnam was a large and conspicuous example of a failed attempt to use armed force to get an adversary to change its policies—in this case, to get the North Vietnamese to abandon its objective of uniting all of Vietnam under its rule.

Among the other variables that matter are whatever other pressures and constraints, besides the threatened military force, the targeted regime is experiencing. Failure to take such variables into account is a shortcoming of the frequent references to the air wars in the Balkans in the 1990s as supposedly having been successful in breaking the will of Slobodan Milošović. The references routinely ignore what else was going on at the time, such as what Croatian forces were doing on the ground in Bosnia. In Syria today, the Assad regime is engaged in an intense civil war and waging a struggle both domestically and internationally not only for its legitimacy but for its very existence. Nothing remotely resembling that is true of the government in Iran.

Of particular importance are the nature of the specific issues in dispute and what they imply for the priority that each side places on them, the determination of the target regime to maintain its stance, and how defensible that stance is internationally. Here again there is a big difference between the Syrian and Iranian situations. The Syrian regime not only possesses but also, it appears, lethally used a weapon that is the subject of a near-universal prohibition. The type of (not quite so universally prohibited) weapon that is supposedly the concern with Iran is one that Iran does not possess, has never used, and hasn't even decided to build. The Iranian program that is the focus of concern is one that the Iranians believe, strongly and correctly, they are entitled to maintain under international law and the relevant international control regimes.

An added aspect of the issue involved in the Iranian case is that to the extent there is any interest in Tehran in someday developing a nuclear weapon, probably the most important motivation would be a hope that such a weapon would help to deter foreign military attack on Iran. Threatening an attack is thus more likely to stoke than to diminish any interest in such a weapon.

Among the reasons that threats of armed force often not only do not work but may even be counterproductive—stiffening the resolve of the decision-makers on the other side—is that regimes do not like to be bullied. They are even more likely than schoolkids to push back, once they have gotten their nationalist dander up. Another, somewhat related, reason is that domestic politics are affected by such threats, with hardliners being empowered or incumbent decision-makers having to modify their policies to avoid losing out to the hardliners.

A little role-reversed thinking should make these dynamics easy for Americans to understand. What would be the political impact in the United States if it became the target of some other country's threats of armed attack? Would American hardliners cower and be silenced, and would there be a surge of sentiment in favor of making whatever concessions the threatener wants? Of course not. The result would be the opposite. One of the downsides of American exceptionalist thinking is a failure to understand how many foreigners' responses to what we do are basically the same as how we would respond to similar acts from them.

In Tehran, President Rouhani has to contend with his own hardliners. Bullying Iran with threats of armed attack does not help him to do that. The conventional American wisdom, now amplified by simplistic conclusions extracted from the Syrian episode, that threats of armed force will help bring about more accommodating Iranian positions on the nuclear issue is almost certainly wrong. Not only wrong, but counterproductive. That is all the more true because such threats feed the suspicions of Iranians, who already have been given ample reason to hold such suspicions, that the United States is interested not in an agreement but only in regime change.

Different elements in the United States will continue to push the mistaken conventional wisdom about the efficacy of threats for their different reasons. The Obama administration wants to continue to portray its Syria policy as a success and also wants to placate a rightist Israeli government that appears to have little compunction about starting wars. Many Americans, including many members of Congress, voice the conventional wisdom because they simply do not know better. Then there are those who do know better but continue to promote military threats because they do not want an agreement with Iran and understand how such threats may help to kill the prospects for one.

TopicsArms ControlCongressDomestic PoliticsDefenseHistoryInternational LawPublic OpinionWMD RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesSyria

Highlights from our Syria Coverage

The Buzz

The ongoing crisis involving Syria, its deadly civil war, the release of chemical weapons and the various responses to fast-moving events have dominated the headlines for the past several weeks.

With talk of an American strike to punish the Syrian regime to Russian proposals to solve the crisis and ongoing diplomacy, covering this issue from all perspectives has become our mission here at TNI.

We are proud to present some of our best material on the subject. By no means comprehensive, our goal is to showcase to our readers the various perspectives on the crisis, the long-term consequences for U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East and beyond.

Syria: Vetting the Chemical-Weapon Plan By: Dina Esfandiary - The challenges will be great.

Doing Red Lines Right By: Benjamin Alter - Syria and Iran won't be deterred by vague commitments.

Obama's Goldilocks Syria Plan By: James Joyner - Diplomacy backed by the threat of a war that's not too big and not too small.

Syria: World Sees Way Out in Lavrov Proposal By: Nikolas K. Gvosdev - Caught between Obama's interventionism and Putin's defense of national sovereignty über alles, an international solution is attractive to many.

On Syria: Don't Take Regime Change Off the Table By: William C. Martel - An effective effort to prevent future chemical weapons use cannot exclude it.

Questions About War with Syria By: Paul J. Saunders & Ryan Evans - The Obama administration should clarify several matters before launching a war.

Holding Assad Accountable By: Orde F. Kittrie & Gregory D. Koblentz - Numerous legal and economic steps remain against the Syrian government.

Brzezinski on the Syria Crisis by Jacob Heilbrunn - An interview with the former national security advisor from June 2013.

TopicsFailed StatesRogue StatesSecurity RegionsSyria