DEFENDING AMERICA’S LIGHT PRESENCE IN SYRIA

Adolfo Lujan_Syria

by Kahlil Ram
Staff Writer

After the 2011 Syrian democratic protests derailed into a horrifying civil war, many wonder why the United States did not do more to stop the crisis. ISIS had been allowed to carve out a piece of territory the size of Belgium. Bashar al-Assad, with the help of his Russian and Iranian allies, bombed and shot his people by the thousands and the Free Syrian Army fought and died in the dust while anemic American aid seemed to limp toward the frontlines. To many, it appeared as though this was an abject failure of American policy and that the United States, through cowardice and stupidity, had allowed this situation to unfold. However, proponents for a more aggressive Syria policy frequently misinterpret or overlook salient details of the Syrian uprising, as well as the geo-strategic quandaries that prevented a heavy American counterblow. Conflicting regional objectives with supposed allies like the Gulf states and Turkey, diplomatic problems involving Russia and Iran and the extremely problematic reality of extensive jihadist proliferation and infiltration across the Syrian opposition–not to mention the haunting memories of the post 2003 Iraq occupation–all justify the measured and dispassionate American response.

The problem with Syria is that it is not diplomatically reliant on the United States, but is still of great strategic interest to the richest, most powerful countries in the Middle East. Its alliance with Iran, access to oil fields, central location and border with Israel all make Syria an important country on the Middle Eastern chessboard. Additionally, Syria’s border with Iraq proved critical for the revival of ISIS after it was nearly defeated at the hands of the Bush administration’s surge strategy and the Anbar Awakening movement in 2007. For the United States, these realities are essential. In a brutal proxy war mainly involving Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Russia and Iran–not to mention jihadists–there are very few local tools the United States can rely on to pursue its interests. As a member of the “resistance bloc” Syria has aligned itself with Iran’s anti-Israel, anti-American sentiment, which helps split the Syrian opposition between pro and anti-Western intervention. The Syrian regime has also engendered the hatred of Iran’s nemesis, Saudi Arabia–a country, in concert with other Gulf states–that has dangerously few qualms about supporting jihadists among the opposition. For the United States, this means competing in an arena in which it has varying levels of support. It must prevent its own allies from radicalizing the opposition, while simultaneously supporting a shrinking and less effective group of rebel moderates as they fight ISIS and Assad.

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Critically, the underpinning for a strategy of light involvement centers around the fact that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was a dangerous and unreliable group for the United States to support. The FSA was conceived as the armed security wing of the Syrian opposition to protect its members from increasing regime brutality. Its objectives were to become the official umbrella organization linking multitudes of small local militias together, and to provide a hub for international patrons to supply and organize around. However, the FSA suffered from several key problems. Fundamentally, it was a fractured and decentralized organization that could exert little control over various local units. Because of the nature of a proxy war and the amount of funds that Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia were funneling into their preferred rebel groups, rebels had little incentive to accept oversight by anyone other than their specific patron–and often not even these, given the ubiquity of potential suppliers.

As a result, rebels were difficult to control and would happily espouse radical ideologies–whether or not they actually believed in them–if it meant winning the support of wealthy Gulf donors sympathetic to violent salafism. Finding groups that were moderate, democratically minded and respectful of humanitarian and international law was a daunting prospect when rebels utterly despised the Assad regime and had other easier avenues for access to weapons. This undercuts the argument for heavily backing the FSA: U.S., coalition and rebel objectives only converged on the toppling of the Assad regime, but not what came after. As America learned from defeating the USSR in Afghanistan only to watch the Taliban fill the void, supporting dangerous allies can have terrible long term effects. The inability of the FSA to control its constituents combined with the willingness of the Gulf countries to support jihadist militants made wholesale support of the FSA impossible. This was exacerbated by the willingness of jihadi terrorists to temporarily adopt moderate messaging in order to embed within more palatable mainstream opposition groups. The United States had great difficulty excising the al Nusra Front–al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate–from the ranks of FSA fighters.

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In addition to the endemic problems with the FSA, flooding a proxy war with weapons only serves to make the situation more violent, while reducing chances for peace. When the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey supply their proxies, Iran and Russia counterbalance by supplying the Syrian regime. When the rebels gain ground, Assad can count on his allies to save him, and when the rebels lose ground they will not surrender for fear of being massacred, and because they too can rely on assistance. For example, the 2012 and 2013 CIA plan to back various rebel groups against Assad and ISIS succeeded only in increasing bloodshed and eliciting countermoves by Assad’s allies, while moving no closer to peace. In short, the more weapons there are in the region, the less incentive there is to lay them down. Were the United States to pursue a more aggressive strategy by supporting the rebels en masse, it would be doing little more than fanning the flames yet higher.

The United States wisely refrained from being goaded into an overzealous response in Syria. Without the diplomatic and theater tools necessary to control the fractured groups of the FSA, America would have essentially found itself competing with Gulf countries and Turkey to fund and arm rebel groups (the most successful of which were jihadists) in an effort to control them. This would have been impossible given that such groups were highly averse to outside control and had their pick of regional patrons, a problem that was exacerbated by the fact that the Gulf countries and Turkey had competing objectives that did not align with long term U.S. interests. Additionally, Assad’s allies could effectively counter whatever support the opposition received by pouring weapons, money and even troops into Syria in support of the regime. Added to this is the presence of ISIS, a group that would have gained oxygen had the U.S. Army tried to occupy Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria, but was instead gradually crushed by the U.S. Air Force and Kurdish and Iraqi ground troops. Despite the horrific violence that has plagued Syria, the United States was in no position to actually prevent it. After the protests turned violent, increased American involvement would have only elevated Syria’s suffering and moved it further away from peace.

Works Referenced:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/10/epic-failure-of-our-age-how-west-failed-syria

Lynch, Marc. The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East. New York: PublicAffairs, 2017. Print.

Gelvin, James L. The New Middle East: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Print.

Gerges, Fawaz A. A History of ISIS. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Print.

Warrick, Joby. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. New York: Anchor Books, 2016. Print.

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Adolfo Lujan

SYRIAN FREEDOM

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U.S. REPUTATION THREATENED UNDER TRUMP

by Eden Allegretti
Staff Writer26015622008_ee9e2ba89b_z

Throughout my whole life, I have grown to realize what America symbolizes not only to our citizens, but to the world: a country based on freedom, equality, endless opportunities and hope. It is with these principles in mind that so many Americans and their representatives have fought to legalize gay marriage, provide affordable healthcare to all, shelter refugees, reduce pay inequality and much more. While not all of these battles have been won, and not all of our principles are fully embodied, America has stood as a leader for hope and progress to the world. In just over a year, Donald Trump has irrevocably tarnished this reputation. Trump sits in the most respected and powerful seat of our nation and arguably the world. Throughout both his campaign and time in office, his administration has worked to normalize racist and sexist behavior and has used hate as a platform for international policies.

As a young adult, I am worried about the future of our nation. I have continued to question- after this administration is out of office, will the America that I believe in, the one that strives for freedom, equality and opportunities, be left? Our international standing is delicate, not something we can easily reverse and recover from. It is important to ensure that America upholds a favorable reputation so that other nations, organizations and world leaders are willing to diplomatically work with us and not use violent tactics to obtain their goals. Instead, Trump and his administration have implemented international policies that promote hatred and that have caused other nations to be less confident in the principles that America once strove to embody.

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As seen above, Pew Research Centre surveyed 40,447 people in 37 countries, and asked them their level of confidence in Donald Trump compared to that of Barack Obama. Only Russia and Israel out of the 37 countries they surveyed said that they felt more confident in Trump doing the right thing opposed to Obama; the other 35 countries felt more secure in Obama and described Trump as “arrogant,” “intolerant” and “dangerous.” Russia and Israel felt more confident in Trump, which comes as no surprise due to the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the national election and Israel’s familiarity with oppressive border walls that segregate one ethnic group from another. Mexico gave Trump one of the worst confidence ratings, partially due to Trump’s labeling of Mexicans when he said “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” and used this labeling as an excuse to start building the so called ‘border wall’ that was one of his campaign promises.

Trump has a history of quickly labeling other countries and people based on stereotypes or allegations. For example, in an Oval Office meeting on Jan. 11, 2018, Trump became frustrated after discussing immigration policies for Haiti, El Salvador and African countries. He asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” This comment is specifically significant in the case of El Salvador, due to the United States’ support of the El Salvadoran right-wing dictatorship during the civil war from 1980-1992. During the war, over 75,000 civilians died, and 85% of the killings were done by United States trained forces.  After the fall of the U.S. backed dictatorship, El Salvador was left as a destroyed, war torn country overflowing with poverty, missing family members and destroyed villages. In a way, the United States supported the system and government that created the characteristics for Trump to categorize El Salvador as a “shithole country.” Trump also asked “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” These comments come only one day prior to the 8-year commemoration of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that left close to 300,000 Haitians dead, and displaced over 1.5 million people.  Now, Trump and his administration have ended the Temporary Protected Status for both Salvadoran and Haitian refugees that fled their countries after high magnitude earthquakes.  

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The international outcry to these comments and policies commenced quickly, with the spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, Rupert Colville, saying “There is no other word one can use but ‘racist’. You cannot dismiss entire countries and continents as ‘shitholes’, whose entire populations, who are not white, are therefore not welcome.” Trump’s “shithole countries” comments stirred a largely negative international response, but we must realize that these comments are not rare. Trump has been quoted saying that African immigrants are the “worst of the worst,” that Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS”, and that Nigerians will “never go back to their hut.” These comments do not reflect America’s principles of hope and freedom, but instead those of bigotry and racism. The Trump administration attempted to compensate for the “shithole countries” comment by saying that Trump wants to “make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.” It seems that by Trump’s standards, immigrants can only “make our country stronger” if they are white and rich, and if they aren’t, then they should just go back to where they are from, regardless of the state and safety of their home countries.

Many have tried to justify the president’s comments, and Trump himself completely denied that he used the term “shithole countries”, despite the countless media sources and politicians that reported otherwise. Multiple respected international leaders have come out not only against these comments and false justifications, but against the president himself. For example, at the United Nations General Assembly in September of 2017, Trump was called a “rogue newcomer.” The German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, denounced Trump’s ‘America First’ policy by stating that “The motto ‘Our Country First’ not only leads to more national confrontations and less prosperity, in the end, there will only be a loser.” These quotes demonstrate that President Trump has created a new international reputation for America based off the principles of hate, racism, and ignorance that are unaccepting of anything not deemed ‘American’ by Trump’s standards.

 

The day after the election of Donald Trump, I got a text message from my Aunt that said she was “so sorry that this was the world I would have to grow up to fix,” but as an 18-year-old that is not satisfied with the American reputation Trump has created, I am already working to fix it. By calling local congressmen, getting involved in campaigns, protesting, and voting, the American people can ensure that hatred is not what America is known for. Instead, we can be known for the principles I have always known to be possible and worthy of pursuit: freedom, equality, endless opportunities and hope.

Images by:
Gustave Deghilage
Elide

 

The Travel Ban: The Politics of Immigration in the U.S. (I-House Global Forum Review)

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By Sneha Naren
Staff Writer

International House (I-House) is a residential community on UCSD’s campus that houses domestic and international students and organizes programs which foster multicultural curiosity and understanding.

My childhood as a second generation American was filled with narrations by my relatives explaining their struggles with immigration. One story which holds a strong place in my memory is one told by my uncle, in which he detailed his battles with obtaining a green card. As an Indian citizen, he was on a temporary work visa (H-1B visa), which required 7-10 years of American residency to obtain. After successfully being employed and living in the country for more than 10 years, he applied for a green card, which would place him just one step away from obtaining full American citizenship. A few months before his appointment for the green card, the dot-com bubble hit and his company shut down. As a result, he no longer had an employer sponsoring his visa, and thus didn’t have the legal backing to be granted a green card. He left America not knowing whether he would be allowed back in the country. Unfortunate timing of an unfortunate company fate had jeopardized everything he had been working for in the past 10 years.

Every time I heard this story, I would think about how lucky I was to be born during an age when it was easy for people from around the world to establish their lives in America. I had always associated difficult immigration laws with an “older” American society. Maybe it was because the only stories I was exposed to took place at least 15 years ago, or maybe it was due to the immense presence of international people around me. I never took the time to think about how they ended up here, or what battles they may still be dealing with on a daily basis. In my eyes, simply their physical presence in this country was proof that we were all living the “American dream.”

This past Thursday, Oct. 26, International House at UCSD held a Global Forum, which are weekly events held throughout the year featuring a debate or discussion on relevant global issues. This time, the event was called “The Travel Ban: The Politics of Immigration in the US.” UCSD Professor Babak Rahimi led the discussion, providing an extremely informative lecture on the recent alterations of the travel ban proposed by President Donald Trump. Throughout Trump’s time in office, he has proposed different variations of his widely propagated travel ban that controversially banned individuals from Muslim majority countries. The most recent version of the travel ban attempted to counter the rumored anti-Muslim sentiments behind the ban by preventing the entry of citizens from countries like North Korea and Venezuela as well.

Professor Rahimi’s main argument was that the travel ban is not a new phenomenon, but rather one that has existed in America since the early 1900s, referencing the early quota system which placed a limit on the number of citizens of a particular nationality who could enter the U.S.. Acts such as the Immigration Act of 1875 excluded Asians from entering America, much like the travel ban is doing today with Muslims. Professor Rahimi proposed that “identity politics” is the main driver of legislations like the travel ban, that laws like these are a reaction to the changing demography in the U.S. and therefore divide people based on their religion and ethnic background. The government thus shapes a “distinct kind of identity” in this country. Anyone who doesn’t appear to fall into the category of this identity is seen as an outsider and risks being discriminated against.

The biggest problem with identity politics is that it creates a barrier of who is publically accepted to regard a country as their “home.” Traditionally, we are taught that home is the country in which you feel most comfortable. For many of us, our homeland is where we were born and brought up. But when identity politics is enforced, it is no longer enough to truly feel like you belong in a country. Instead, you have to look like you belong there. You have to hold the same image as the one being propagated as the “typical citizen.” Professor Rahimi, being a US citizen himself, details this situation perfectly. After 9/11, he was told that he was a “security threat” in airports, even though he held a US passport and was a native of Orange County. Student Nibhil Azzouzi also shared a similar story, stating that his Moroccan descent made him an outsider at his school in Minneapolis. Due to the ban, our identity is jeopardized by the physical features which the media and government label as dangerous. As Azzouzi said, individuals are being dehumanized solely based off of their religion and surface-level characteristics. They are being told that they don’t belong in the country, even though they may view it as their home. Throughout the discussion, it occurred to me that I am not lucky because I am an American citizen. Instead, I am lucky because my physical features don’t align with the image of a “threat” that the government has created.

Perhaps the most emotional story was shared by Anahati Albassi, who is a Ph.D. student in the music department at UCSD. As an Iranian citizen, she has been extremely affected by the constant travel bans that have been imposed throughout the year. This has not only affected her personal life, but has had a lasting impact on her professional life, as well. As an award winning musician, she tours internationally, performing concerts around the world. The travel ban imposed in January not only affected her travel to Iran, but also affected her travel worldwide. She was no longer able to attend any of her scheduled concerts. Even her travels to countries like Canada were canceled because of her inability to obtain a visa.

It is shocking that even the sharing of an art form as transnational and soulful as music can be impacted so greatly by the often divisive and skewed politics in this country. Anahita’s inability to travel prevents individuals around the world from hearing her compositions and being exposed to what is regarded as a “universal language,” simply because of her nationality. She has attempted to adapt to these unfortunate conditions through using applications like Skype to be present at her own concerts, however poor internet connection and poor sound quality prevent Anahita from being able to properly guide her fellow musicians in performing her compositions. As she stated, “the most important thing of being an artist is to collaborate with other people.” The imposed travel ban prevents Anahita from doing this.  

She also explained how inaccurately the media portrays the effects of the ban. Many believe that the I-20 form (a visa issued to international students studying in the U.S.) gives them complete freedom to stay in the country. However, she has been told that there is no guarantee that her visa will be renewed once it expires. In order to renew the visa, one must exit the borders. Thus, the future of Anahita and many others who study in the U.S. remains uncertain.

Listening to Anahita’s story in pin-drop silence made me realize how ignorant I have been to the entire situation. I’ve always seen myself as a “global citizen” simply because I’ve lived in different countries and have been exposed to various religions and cultures. But somewhere in our human nature, we have an inability to fully understand what doesn’t directly affect us. It’s this very quality that allows laws like the travel ban to exist. As Nibhil Azzouzi explained, the integration of different cultures is the very essence of this country. The food we eat and the buildings we study in exist due to globalization. But still, somehow, the government chooses to impose a strictly anti-globalist policy. Most importantly, the people that we are characterizing as “terrorists” or “threats” – they are mothers, fathers and children. They are students and scholars and artists just like us.

The forum ended with a very important question from an audience member, who asked what a possible solution to the travel ban could be. The answer?  “Just stay informed.” Find ways to read up on the situation, learn about the different visas that are required, and find out how the ban truly affects the lives of those around us. We are all affected by the loss of culture and shared humanity that this ban imposes. The integration of different thoughts, lifestyles and beliefs form the very basis of this country, and that fundamental ideology that pulls us together should never be banned.

Image by Masha George