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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry, "Ruins of the Ancient theatre of Taormina", 1905. Via Wikimedia.

Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry, “Ruins of the Ancient theatre of Taormina”, 1905. Via Wikimedia.

Apologies for the light posting. What I read this week:

Syria continues to dominate the news, and Seth Kaplan runs down seven scenarios for the country’s future (via Sam Roggeveen).

James Joyner argues that Obama’s proposed limited-strikes on regime targets make “no strategic sense,” and it’s difficult to disagree. David Kaye has more on the legal problems behind intervention in Syria.

Gregory Djerejian on the administration’s ill-advised red line and reaction to the Assad regime’s apparent disregard for it: “Frankly, I am astonished by the lack of seriousness and mediocrity on display” (via Kevin Drum).

What does the House of Commons’ dramatic rejection of Cameron’s plans mean for the Obama administration? Probably not much.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian on why the US and Iran must find some way to cooperate in Syria.

Rosa Brooks writes that America is a “wounded giant” unable to admit that its global influence is shrinking.

In other news, David Axe reviews new reporting on Russia’s Sukhoi T-50 fighter. As has been suspected, it appears that the PAK FA program is intended to deliver a limited-production fighter optimized to bypass fighters and destroy AWACS aircraft at long range deep in enemy airspace.

Speaking of aircraft, Michael Bob Star and Robert Farley both have more on Farley’s criticism of the USAF.

Nine scientific breakthroughs that killed science-fiction subgenres. My personal favorite would be the primordial, rainforest Venus trope, which seems to have definitively vanished by the 1960s. One day routine interstellar transit may be added to this list, but I doubt it — writing stories with centuries-long transit times is admirable, but hard!

Finally, more linkage at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Colleen – Geometría Del Universo.

The Debate Over Striking Syria

By Taylor Marvin

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Carmichael Yepez

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Carmichael Yepez

At Political Violence @ a Glance, today I collected arguments for and against the apparently-immanent US-led strikes on Syrian regime targets. Unfortunately at 800 words length constraints meant that I was unable to include all the writing and analysis I’ve been reading on the subject, so if you’re interested here’s further links:

At the Monkey Cage Erik Voeten and Erica Chenoweth link to various political scientists thoughts on the matter. Peter Feaver speculates on why Assad would use chemical weapons, a particularly puzzling question given the regime’s apparent recent military momentum at the expense of the rebels. Feaver suggests that the regime possibly doubted the administration’s commitment to punishing chemical attacks or did not realize just how horrific the Ghouta attack would be, the first a mechanism I discussed in May.

The Smoke-Filled Room’s Chris Clary endorses “modest” military force in Syria, subscribing to the argument that US/UK/FR airpower should be used to cancel out the military advantage Assad has apparently gained from CW use.

Daniel Soloman looks at what he terms an “immanent disaster.”

John Mueller, author of Atomic Obsession and noted WMD skeptic, argued in FA last April that the Obama administration should walk back from its anti-chemical weapons red line.

Brent Sasley argues at PVG that the Obama administration’s apparent military response to the Ghouta attack isn’t about enforcing the international anti-chemical weapons norm, which isn’t in danger — I subscribe to this theory.

Stephen Walt wants President Obama to publicly admit that striking Syria would have little practical affect and attempt to leverage this admission into pressuring Russia and China into a renewed diplomatic offensive.

Last weekend Fred Kaplan attempted to examine the logic of President Obama’s apparent change of heart on intervention, citing the desire to avoid empty threats, the importance of enforcing the anti-chemical weapons norm, and Obama’s personal commitment to international norms.

Via Karolina Lula, the NTI’s overview of Syrian chemical weapons is a useful resource.

Update: The UK appears to not be joining any potential strikes.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 'The First of May 1851', 1851. Via Wikimedia.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, ‘The First of May 1851’, 1851. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

David Axe reviews the massive JSF program’s many, many shortcomings. Given that the program’s size makes it effectively invincible at this point, the US needs to start planning for how its 21st century strategic outlook will be altered by fleet dominated by an uncompetitive aircraft.

Robert Farley passes on a very cool graphic comparing world aircraft carriers. And what do I spy on four classes? F-35s!

Amy Davidson has a strong piece on the “Assange precedent problem.”

How the US military’s lack of a “culture of ownership for this mission set” affects its ability to respond to Syrian WMD usage (via Paul MacDonald).

Foreign Affairs has a long piece on Ali Khamenei, and Haideh Moghissi asks how Hassan Rouhani’s election will affect women’s rights in Iran.

Sarah Bush has a very interesting interview with Daniela Donno about Cambodia’s post-election crisis.

Are Egypt’s generals following the Algeria playbook?

Anne Applebaum argues that the Obama administration should support “democracy”, rather than the military or MB, in Egypt.

Jay Ulfelder notes that nurturing democracy is harder than it looks and that “there are no ‘best practices’ for democratic transitions.”

Noah Millman on why the decision about how Egypt’s coup should affect US aid to the country isn’t an easy one.

Joshua Keating has a new blog at Slate covering international affairs.

As always, more links on political violence over at PVG.

D’Angelo – Me And Those Dreamin’ Eyes Of Mine (Jay Dee Remix).

Histomaps and Euro-Centric Histories

HistomapFinal.jpg.CROP.article920-largeBy Taylor Marvin

At Slate, Rebecca Onion highlights a gorgeous vintage poster that claims to illustrate “4,000 years of world history.” This “Histomap” — created by John B. Sparks in 1931 — attempts to show the waxing and waning power of rival civilizations graphically and, in Onion’s words, “emphasizes domination, using color to show how the power of various “peoples” (a quasi-racial understanding of the nature of human groups, quite popular at the time) evolved throughout history.” Click through to Slate for an expanded view.

I’ve previously encountered the Histomap, though I wouldn’t have remembered it until seeing Onion’s post — if I recall correctly, in 7th grade a teacher showed a copy to my class during a world history lesson. But looking at the chart today, what’s most apparent is just how dated the Histomap’s view of history is; specifically, Sparks presents an enormously Western Europe-centric view of world history. This perspective draws from the chart’s vague definitions, which allow its estimations of various people’s “relative power” to fit Sparks’, and the 1931 Western culture he represents, own biases. If relative power derives from the size of empires, why do the 15th century Incas appear so minusculely insignificant? Similarly, in the first century AD the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty both controlled roughly a fifth and a quarter of humanity. By what possible criteria could Rome hold two thirds of “world power” and China almost none? Why is the 16th century Spanish Empire, which controlled one of the largest empires in history, ranked as significantly less powerful than England?

Ultimately the Histomap reflects, of course, its author’s contemporary biases rather than any real historical realities (not that this reality would be at all possible to convey is such a simplistic format). Western civilization defines itself as the heir to the ancient Greek and then Roman civilizations through early-modern Western (importantly, not Mediterranean or Catholic) European intermediaries, a self-appointed narrative much stronger in Sparks’ era than today. It’s unsurprising, but deeply illuminating, that the Histomap highlights these cultural traditions at the expense of others.

Note: To emphasize the Histomap’s uncomfortable racial connotations, Sparks’ “Histomap of Evolution” charts the history of human civilizations as well as those of “mollusks” and “protozoa”. With the implication being that human ethic groups are as biologically separate as zoological taxa, this view of history is one of the clearest example of the Social Darwinist philosophy imaginable.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Byzantine Emperor Heraclius submitting Sassanid king Khosrau II, 1170. Via Wikimedia.

Byzantine Emperor Heraclius submitting Sassanid king Khosrau II, 1170. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Robert Farley again argues that the US military’s sea-air-land separation reflects interservice politics rather than the needs of joint warfighting, and that the USAF should be absorbed into the USA and USN. I look forward to Farley’s book on the subject.

James Fearon finds global militaries to be “an industry in decline.” Somewhat relatedly, how to reorientate towards a cheaper, stronger US military.

Brad Plummer talks to Marc Lynch, who elaborates on why the US should cut aid to Egypt. Daniel Larison agrees.

Mohamed El Dahshan describes the violence: “I want to write about the mosques that have been used as morgues, the stench of death covering the habitual smell of incense…”

On Twitter, Nate Schenkkan makes an interesting point arguing that if it wasn’t for mass migrations, Central American governments would suffer the same upheavals as the Middle East’s.

Dexter Filkins on Turkey’s show trials.

Kevin Drum flags how not to sell UAVs — and don’t forget not to call them drones!

More early-week linkage at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Neil Young – See The Sky About To Rain.

Stalemate, Secession, and the Future of Syria

Source: The Economist.

Source: The Economist.

By Taylor Marvin

As the conflict in Syria drags on and grows ever more sectarian, it is becoming increasingly expected that whatever the war’s outcome, it will not include a unified Syria. While the rebels control 60 to 70 percent of mainly rural Syria, opposition forces appear to have lost military momentum, have fractionalized, and seem unable to threaten the regime’s hold over many urban areas and Syria’s western coastal strip. Likewise, the Assad government appears similarly unable to retake the rebel-held center of the country, and after two years of increasingly-sectarian warfare it is difficult to imagine how the Assad government could ever again govern the entire country.

As a result of this stalemate, ‘Syria’ is an increasingly obsolete concept: as recent reporting from AP and the Economist suggests, Syria is splitting into three distinct regions. Opposition forces hold the country’s predominantly-Sunni center, the regime the west, and Kurds enjoy increasing autonomy along the northeast Turkish border. While this division is nowhere near clearcut — the regime still holds many urban centers and military installations within rebel territory, for instance — these three regions are increasingly diverging, as each adopts different ad hoc institutions and overtly-sectarian cultures. Schoolchildren in the northeast now learn in previously-banned Kurdish, and various Sunni factions compete within the opposition to establish Islamist government in the country’s center.

Writing in Al-Monitor, David W. Lesch wonders if this incipit trifurcation heralds the end of the Middle East’s colonially-imposed boundaries. Borders between chaotic Syria and its neighbors have weakened, Lesch writes, noting that the borders drawn up by the post-Ottoman colonial mandate system artificially unite disparate ethnic and religious groups into countries that have been unable to forge durable national identities. Ottoman administration tended to follow sectarian and ethnic divisions, while the new order drawn up by British and French colonialists “was to all intents and purposes the imposition of the Western-based Westphalian nation-state system onto the Middle East,” and “centuries of pre-existing orientations were cast aside.” As the war in Syria drags on, Lesch concludes that “we may be witness to a generation-long process that will remap much of the Middle East.”

All this calls to mind Fred Kaplan’s recent piece in Slate arguing that, spurred by the US invasion of Iraq, these artificial borders are beginning a long process of reorganization. At the time I doubted Kaplan’s argument, noting that even “artificial” states that combine disparate ethnic and sectarian groups can be durable entities, and major modern-era restructuring is rare in other regions with similarly colonially-defined borders. (Notably, the post-independence national boundaries of South America were similarly artificial, and required a century of warfare to stabilize.) What’s more, I doubted that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that Kaplan cites has begun this reorganization when previous stressor events like the Iran-Iraq War did not.

So where does this leave the future of Syria, and the wider Middle East’s, boundaries? Syria’s eventual unraveling appears more likely today than in March, when Kaplan questioned whether sectarian civil violence would lead to “new borders be drawn up at some point, conforming to some historically ‘natural’ sectarian divisions.” But just how likely is Syria to split into two or three independent, widely recognized new nations?

In my mind, this question remains unclear. While Syria’s Kurdish region is, as Lesch notes, growing increasingly autonomous, Turkey remains enormously invested in preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. Given that Iraqi Kurdistan has existed semi-autonomously since the Gulf War and more so after 2003, it is unclear if an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region is sufficient impetus to finally allow for the creation of a formally independent Kurdish state.

Similarly, it is unclear if the Syrian conflict will lead to a permanent bi- or trisecting of Syrian geography. While the Assad government appears unable to retake control of most of the country now, the regime is determined to do so — Assad recently claimed that any diplomacy with the rebels is unacceptable and the conflict will “be decided on the field.” While it is unclear how genuine this resolve is, it remains substantial barrier to the prospect of a stable division as long as the regime retains conventional military superiority. Conversely, if the rebels do manage to consolidate their hold on the Euphrates river valley — an outcome that implies increasingly rebel military capabilities — it is unclear if the regime-dominated coast of the country will be able to successfully extricate itself from a now-lost Syria. When considering the possibility of an independent Alawite-dominated coastal strip, Steve Saideman wrote last year that the outcome of a rebel consolidation is more likely to be mass killings of those associated with the regime than successful secession: “The folks who win in Syria are not going to let their former oppressors escape, especially if they take the coastline along with them.”

The opposition may have every intention of evicting the regime and punishing its supporters, but after a year of military stablemate appears unable to do so. While the current stalemate does not appear stable, if rebels manage to take and hold the cities and military bases within their area of influence and avoid further intra-opposition conflict, it’s plausible that the conflict will stabilize leaving three de facto states, with the regime and opposition territories both laying claim to all of Syria. (Though the accelerating disunity of anti-Assad forces suggests that a de facto post-rebel state will only arise after a violent sorting process within the rebel “coalition”.)

So where does this leave the future of the Syrian state construct? Of course, it’s impossible to say, and history is no clear guide: as my recent post reminded, states are transient entities. But formal secession is difficult, and the idea of a state is a norm that’s similarly difficult to erase: Syrians both for and against the Assad government remember Syria as a unified state, and both have incentives to regain control over it by defeating their rival. Today’s apparent military stalemate makes this currently unlikely, but it is similarly unclear if this stalemate will persist long enough for desires to reunify the country to dissipate; “none of the sides can speak of confidently retaining the terrain they control,” AP reports.

Similarly, there are still many step to formal statehood. Will possibly future negotiations to end the fighting recognize these de facto boundaries, and will the opposition be able to present a unified anti-Assad front? Who will recognize these new states?

It’s also worth remembering that any type of “stable” division is unlikely to be welcomed by the international community, as it implies mass migrations and ethnic cleansing.

Barring a major shift in the Syrian conflict — whether caused by one side gaining military momentum or a decisive foreign intervention — the current stalemate appears set to continue. If it does, Syria’s three regions will grow farther apart, suggesting greater de facto future independence. But it is important to not overgeneralize this shift: it’s possible that the Syrian war will ultimately see Syria divided into two or three formally independent states, but there are many, many people with an incentive to forestall this future, avoid negotiated settlement, or forcibly reunify the country. Whether current inertial will overwhelm this desire remains to be seen.

Update: On Twitter Danny Hirschel-Burns adds, “As I see it, contradictorily, both a united Syria and the redrawing of state borders are going out of fashion simultaneously, which could have grave consequences for a negotiated solution.”

Writing and Reporting on Egypt’s Mass Killings

By Taylor Marvin

Today at Political Violence @ a Glance I compiled a list of links to great reporting and analysis on the recent mass attacks on pro-Morsi demonstrators by Egypt’s security services. Check it out if you’re interested.

Given the volume of items being published on the killings and what they mean for Egypt’s future, there are some that I missed:

Paul Pillar paints the choice to violently disperse the demonstrators’ camps as a deliberate ploy to radicalize Morsi’s supporters, to the government’s political gain.

Kevin Lees, writing yesterday, largely agrees and sees the killings as a return to Mubarak-era tactics: “At each juncture, as the military has escalated the violence against the Brotherhood, it has only narrowed the path toward a political settlement.”

Juan Cole notes that Morsi’s tenure increasingly resembled a slow-moving coup — “if Morsi was what democracy looked like, many Egyptians did not want it” — but lays responsibility for the violence with the military government.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, 'Self-Portrait', 1650. Via Wikimedia.

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, ‘Self-Portrait’, 1650. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Iran and US both wait on the other for a nuclear compromise. Matt Duss argues that a US attack on Iran is highly unlikely for the rest of Obama’s tenure, an assessment I agree with.

Is COIN the graduate level of war or “pure hokum”? Gian Gentile notes that counterinsurgency is simply war, and are one and lost based on wider strategic contexts rather than special institutional skills.

A Chilean court has closed the Pinochet multi-million dollar embezzlement case, not charging the dictator’s surviving family members (via Lillie Langtry).

“I’m mad as hell…”: Brazilian protests in comparative perspective.

Speaking of Brazil, Dan Drezner notes that 2013 has not been a great year for the BRICS diplomatically, though admittedly unreasonable expectations are more a product of the artificial BRICS narrative than their own fault.

Zimbabwe’s post-election repression: when it comes to international reactions to the recent election, it’s west versus south.

More links on political violence.

Lisa Hannigan – Knots.

Vanished Territories, Borders, and Names

By Taylor Marvin

Today I stumbled across a friend’s copy of a 1970 edition of the National Geographic Society’s world atlas. Perhaps inspired by Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations, my current read, I began noting the territories and states that existed four decades ago, but no longer. A selection of the lesser-known:

canal zone

The US Panama Canal Zone was disestablished in 1979 and fully handed over to Panama in 1999 in accordance with the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties. Incidentally, the Panama Canal Zone is also the birthplace of John McCain.


East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh after (West) Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.


British Honduras, which gained independence in 1981 as Belize, the only country in Central America with English as an official language.

neutral zone

The “neutral zone” along the Saudi Arabian-Iraqi border, implemented in 1922 and only definitively solved by the 1991 Gulf War.


The British colony of Souther Rhodesia, named for 19th century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, unilaterally declared independence in a 1965 bid to preserve white supremacy. Unable to secure international recognition and beset by guerilla movements, Rhodesia was succeeded by Zimbabwe in 1980.

south west africa

After Germany’s defeat in the First World War German South-West Africa fell under South African administration. Apartheid South Africa’s attempts to informally incorporate the territory in the face of local independence movements proved unsuccessful, and South-West Africa declared independence as Namibia in 1990.

upper volta

Gaining independence from France in 1960, the Republic of Upper Volta (named for the Volta Rouge, Volta Noire, and Volta Blanche rivers) was renamed Burkina Faso in 1984.

spanish sahara

Following the end of Spanish colonial administration in 1975, Sáhara Español’s status remains in doubt. Today Western Sahara is divided between the Moroccan-controlled north and western coast and the partially recognized Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and holds the distinction of being both one of the most sparsely populated territories on Earth and the most populous of the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories.

trucial states

The Trucial States is an antiquated name for the British Protectorate that became the U.A.E. in 1971. Note the “Dubayy” spelling.*


A high-water mark of Pan-Arabism, 1958 saw the short-lived attempt to unite Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic. While Syria left the union in 1961, Egypt continued to use the U.A.R designation until 1971.


The Yemen Arab Republic (North) and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South) merged in 1990, which observers hoped would end the Cold War-era rivalry between the two and unify the southwest Arabian peninsula. However, South Yemen seceded in 1994 and was shortly after conquered by the north, again unifying Yemen.

*Update: See comment below.

Miltary Defections, Civil Resistance, and Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Erica Chenoweth has an excellent piece at Waging Nonviolence on how military defections can hamper, not help, civil resistance movements. In Egypt, collaboration between the military and anti-Morsi organizers contributed to the country’s recent coup — and uncertain future of democracy. Military defections vary in intensity, Chenoweth writes, from “full defection” to “partial defection,” and reluctance to follow orders running from “shirking” to “outright disobedience.” The challenge is preventing defections from allowing military elites to co-opt civil resistance movements, as the Egyptian military has done to preserve its privileges. If civil resistance organizers cannot retain their leadership positions in the aftermath of military defections to their cause, movements run the risk of leading to civil war or military juntas. While military defections can be important contributions to the success of civil resistance movements, organizers should “see that security forces have their own interests, and they can easily manipulate the movement to suit their own purposes in ways that undermine the movement’s own agenda.”

In Syria, Chenoweth notes, military defectors brought their skills and equipment into a previously non-violent movement, contributing to its shift into a civil war:

“In the cases of Libya and Syria, nonviolent action led to defections among the armed forces early on in the conflicts. However, the defectors took their weapons with them, regrouped as armed challengers, and essentially undermined and supplanted nonviolent campaigns by initiating armed struggle.”

The sectarian aspects of the Syrian conflict have contributed to this dynamic. While firm supporters of the Assad regime dominated the pre-war Syrian military leadership, they were not its entirety, as high-level military defections have shown. However, by self-selecting out of the military defectors have left a unified force whose loyalty the regime can count on. As Chenoweth wrote last year, “although many conflict scholars view defections as a sign of regime weakness, Assad may see it as a process of voluntary purging.” According “senior official” in Damascus quoted in a May 2013 Crisis Group interview, defections have strengthened the military they leave behind:

“Defections among army ranks have been numerous. We estimate that tens of thousands switched sides. But that meant they left behind the more reliable and motivated troops. In my view, defections are the single most important factor in explaining subsequent army cohesion”

Sectarian divides contribute to this selection dynamic: those who remain in the regime’s military are constantly told that the war is a sectarian conflict pitting Alawites and Shiites against Syria’s Sunni majority, with no option other than victory — ‘Sunnis fight out of fear and Alawites out of conviction,’ in the words of one regime defector.

In addition to contributing to the Syrian protest movements transformation into a military conflict, had these defections no occurred Assad likely would have been constrained by the uncertain loyalty of the armed forces overall. But defections have left Assad with a smaller but more dedicated military whose existence is tied to that of the regime. This information has allowed Assad to avoid the fear that unrestrained violence would lead to further defections — indeed, defections have significantly fallen off since the second half of 2012 (though not halted), suggesting that either opposition sympathizers within the military are now rarer or that fence-sitters are no longer prepared to bargain on the conflict’s outcome. While the Syrian military was never a non-sectarian actor defections have shaped it into a body unlikely to survive the fall of the regime, and thus much more closely associated with it.

Anyway, a really interesting take. Read the whole thing.