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Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, and War Journalists Lost
February has been a month of ominous events and anniversaries
There are certain things you can count on in D.C.: cherry blossoms in spring (well, late winter these days), walking through a cloud of pot smoke on every corner, Uber drivers making arbitrary U-turns in traffic, and pundits, think tanks, and academic institutions piling on the anniversaries of major foreign policy events.
And on cue last week, my inbox was flooded with announcements of panel discussions, virtual conversations, essays, reports, and pop-up books — OK, maybe not, but I would not be surprised — marking the one-year anniversary of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The blob — the somewhat derisive term for the D.C. foreign policy establishment that often seems to operate as a Borg hive mind — never misses an opportunity to promote itself, that’s for certain.
Due to having a day job, I couldn’t attend or tune into all the various sessions, but I checked out a couple and read plenty of essays to see what the latest prevailing wisdom is among the countless former officials, academics, and other experts inside the beltway, aka the blob.
For those of you interested in some of the takeaways, I go into more detail below. But I want to discuss a different topic first — the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. I wanted to write sooner about this, but since this blog is a side gig, I don’t always get to things when I hope to.
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While February 24 was the one-year anniversary of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it was also the 11-year anniversary of the day I departed on a reporting trip to Turkey and the area that was hit by the earthquake two weeks ago.
February 2012 was the second year of the Arab Spring and the raging civil war in Syria. Early in the month, NPR’s Beirut correspondent Kelly McEvers, the NPR security advisor, and I — I was NPR’s international producer at the time and usually deployed to hostile environments — were planning a stealth trip into Syria. We were going to travel in from Lebanon with Syrian rebels and spend a few days in the Homs area reporting on the war.
It would have been to this day the most dangerous reporting assignment I had completed, but it did not come to pass. On February 22, the Syrian regime deliberately targeted international journalists in Homs, killing Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. The shelling struck a house being used as a media center, which was our destination.
NPR put a freeze on all incursions into Syria. On February 25, I arrived in Beirut, and instead of heading into Syria, headed to a restaurant to join the expat press corps for a wake. Some two dozen of us, including one reporter who had left Homs (reluctantly) a day or two before the shelling and was quite possibly in shock and wracked with survivor’s guilt, gathered at Bread Republic in the Hamra neighborhood to console each other and process the loss.
I didn’t know Marie well. I had only met her six months prior when we were covering the fall of Tripoli. One afternoon, just a couple of days after rebels seized parts of the Libyan capital, a group of journalists climbed a ladder over the wall surrounding the compound of one of Qaddafi’s sons. Later that night, I sat on a balcony at our hotel drinking whiskey with Marie and being in awe of her journalistic experience and her kind, unpretentious manner. She was wise and gracious.
Her death was the second blow to the “tribe” — the foreign/war correspondents — in the month of February 2012. Just six days before Marie and Remi were killed, Anthony Shadid died from an asthma attack on his way out of Syria. He had survived war reporting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other places — including Syria — and died from a medical condition that could have been treated had he been in “civilization” at the time.
So, within a week, the tribe lost two of the most accomplished and venerated war correspondents of all time.
Since sneaking into Syria was no longer an option, I traveled to Istanbul to link up with NPR correspondent Peter Kenyon. We traveled to Hatay province in Turkey to spend several days interviewing Syrians who had fled the conflict and other Syrians who were working to smuggle arms and supplies into Syria and civilians out of the country.
We traveled around the province visiting hospitals, makeshift schools for Syrian children, and meeting with rebels in smoke-filled houses next to the Syria border. We did everything but cross the river into Syria.
Looking back, I can recall the questionable construction of a lot of the houses and buildings. There were areas of dense construction near and on mountains and hills. There were also scattered villages and houses, mostly cinder block construction — not exactly earthquake resistant.
And that’s now coming to light as the Turkish government is arresting hundreds, alleging they violated building codes and cut corners, making the devastation of the quake and the death toll worse than it should have been. Obviously, the situation in Syria is even more complicated by the difficulties of getting aid to victims.
Granted, the building conditions in the area were far better than Kabul. In a story I reported later in 2012, one expert discussed how an earthquake of any significance would level the city and cause hundreds of thousands of casualties. I experienced several earthquakes during my time in Kabul, the most significant — a 5.6 centered some 60 miles from Kabul — gave my house a good shaking — to the point that I had to remember whatever earthquake protocols I had learned in elementary school. They were pretty similar to the nuclear attack drills we still practiced when I was a kid…
Unfortunately, geological odds are Kabul will experience a major quake at some point.
In the meantime, the devastation in Turkey and Syria is heartbreaking, and it’s just one more tragedy for the international humanitarian community to address. That one was not preventable, unlike Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which was preventable by him deciding that invading a democracy that posed no security threat whatsoever was a bad idea.
And this brings us back to the original topic of this post — what the blob is discussing a year into Putin’s war.
Once you filter out the noise on the extreme left and right (a constant challenge in contemporary America), the consensus is unsurprising: Putin must not win, and the West needs to continue providing Ukraine with arms and other support. Pretty simple, really.
The debate of course comes down to things like the definition of “win” and what kinds of arms to supply. For example, there are some who argue that negotiating an end to the war that gives seized Ukrainian territory to Russia would not be a win for Putin since he wouldn’t be achieving his larger goal of taking the whole country and purging its regime. However, that view is not particularly mainstream. Most believe Russia needs to get out of eastern Ukraine. There is not consensus on whether Russia should also get out of Crimea.
You hear a good number of people arguing the United States is not doing enough — it needs to send more sophisticated weapons with longer ranges. For example, the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, is regularly championed because it would allow the Ukrainians to locate the weapons outside the range of Russian weapons.
A colleague at National Defense Magazine wrote about this last week. She reported that Russia has a relatively new artillery platform like the U.S. HIMARS that can fire longer distances. However, it’s unclear how many of these Tornado-S systems Russia has and how many have been moved into Ukraine.
While the Biden administration has not signed off on sending ATACMS, it has begun sending munitions with longer ranges like the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb.
Tanks have also been the subject of debate. A few weeks ago, the administration announced it would send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. However, the odds of an Abrams rolling into Ukraine this year are slim. Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth spoke to defense reporters last week, and she told us that the department was still exploring options on how to get tanks to Ukraine — building new ones, refurbishing older ones, etc.
Either way, she indicated the timeline was likely in the 1-to-2-year range. Basically, the United States made the announcement that it would send tanks to provide political cover for Germany and other European nations to send Leopard 2 tanks. The conflict could be over before any Abrams arrive in Ukraine.
That doesn’t mean Ukraine doesn’t need them or that they wouldn’t help the war effort. It’s hard to argue that the most rugged tank in the world wouldn’t help Ukraine, despite the tank’s complexity of operation and maintenance and the fact that they make a 1969 Camaro SS look fuel efficient — which are basically the reasons the Biden administration had been giving for not sending them.
Another platform you hear a lot about is the F-16. People have been calling for the United States to send the fourth-generation fighters to Ukraine since the war began. Like the Abrams debate, the counterargument is that the jets would require training and maintenance beyond what the Ukrainians can handle.
Senator Jack Reed put a different take on it during a conversation with reporters a couple of weeks ago. He said the reason not to send the jets was because they simply wouldn’t make a difference. He said that Ukrainian airspace is not permissive, and the Ukrainian has been losing their Russian-made jets in combat because Russia has air dominance, and F-16s would not fare any better than the aging Su-27s and MIG 29s flown by Ukraine.
Bottom line, a year after the invasion that most people thought would result in a quick victory for Russia, Ukraine is holding on because of the people’s will to resist Putin’s folly and the volumes of weapons and munitions the world has donated. However, Iran and North Korea are supporting Russia, and there are indications China is preparing to provide Putin with lethal aid.
Hence, the messaging from the blob over the last week has been that the United States must send all the weapons it can and continue supporting Ukraine however it can.
I’ll conclude by noting one essay written last week by former war correspondent and now Brown University fellow Stephen Kinzer. He argues that the blob and the media are complicit in promoting a narrative that Putin is evil, Zelensky is good, Ukraine must win, and the United States — and the world — have a compelling interest in seeing Russia fail. He says that the media are stifling any dissent and challenges to that narrative.
He brings up the valid comparison of the media’s complicity in selling the Iraq war in 2002-2003. I agree that the media — save some of us including an NPR program produced at WBUR in Boston — did a terrible job of challenging the Bush administration’s evidence and arguments for the war.
But I think that dissenting voices have had plenty of opportunities to challenge the decision to support and arm Ukraine, and they continue to voice opposition. And the media are reporting on those who say that the United States has no stake in Ukraine and that it should not be arming the country.
However, the dissenting arguments are not winning the day. Putin experts like Fiona Hill have provided ample evidence through Putin’s words and actions stretching back decades about his views of the world and Russia’s place in it. He’s a revisionist, Christian nationalist, and has a clear pathology.
Kinzer is playing whataboutism and making false equivalencies in his essay. Yes, there are serious questions to consider. Yes, there are some in Ukraine who espouse Nazi ideology. Yes, the country has a history of corruption. Yes, there are risks to flooding the country with sophisticated weapons. Yes, NATO expansion “antagonized” Putin, but countries felt the need to join NATO because of Putin. And U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence in 2008 — another February anniversary — and the lack of costs imposed on Putin for his adventurism in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 contributed to Putin thinking the west was divided and weak and he could roll into Ukraine again with no resistance.
I don’t buy Kinzer’s assertion that the media are one sided and refusing to cover the “other side.” The media are not stifling the discussion or refusing to ask tough questions. It’s just that those arguing Putin is justified and the west should ignore the war as “just another European brushfire” aren’t making a compelling case. As a journalist, I’m as harsh a media critic as anyone. If you think Putin is justified and the west shouldn’t come to Ukraine’s aid, argue your case better. Don’t blame the media because people aren’t siding with you.