Geopolitics

The West's Catastrophic Defeat In The Middle East

Bashar al-Assad still in power in Syria, al-Qaeda still strong in Iraq. The West's double failure, incapable of building a common strategy, is a sign of a now 'post-American' region.

U.S. Marines near Fallujah, Iraq
U.S. Marines near Fallujah, Iraq
Dominique Moïsi

PARIS — Bashar al-Assad is still in power in Damascus and al-Qaeda’s black flag was recently waving above Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq. Not only has the process of fragmentation in Syria now spilled over to Iraq, but these two realities also share a common cause that could be summarized into a simple phrase: the failure of the West.

The capture, even though temporary, of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi by Sunni militias claiming links to al-Qaeda, is a strong and even humiliating symbol of the failure of the policies the United States carried out in Iraq. A little more than a decade after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime — and after hundreds of thousands of deaths on the Iraqi side and more than 5,000 on the American side — we can only lament a sad conclusion: All that for this!

In Syria, the same admission of failure is emerging. Assad and his loyal allies — Russia and Iran — have actually emerged stronger from their confrontation with the West. Civilian massacres, including with chemical weapons, did not change anything. The regime is holding tight, despite losing control of important parts of its territory, thanks to its allies’ support and, most importantly, the weakness of its opponents and those who support them.

In reality, from the Middle East to Africa, the entire idea of outside intervention is being challenged in a widely post-American region. How and when can one intervene appropriately? At which point does not intervening become, to quote the French diplomat Talleyrand following the assassination of the Duke of Enghien in 1804, “worse than a crime, a mistake?”

When is intervention necessary? "Humanitarian emergency" is a very elastic concept. Is the fate of Syrian civilians less tragic than that of Libyans? Why intervene in Somalia in 1992 and not in Sudan? The decision to intervene reveals, in part, selective emotions that can also correspond to certain sensitivities or, in a more mundane way, to certain best interests of the moment.

Intervention becomes more probable when it follows the success of some other action; or, on the contrary, a decision to abstain that led to massacre and remorse. The tragedy of the African Great Lakes in 1994 — not to mention the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995 — certainly contributed to the West’s decision to intervene in Kosovo in 1999. In reality, the intervention of a given country at a given time is typically driven by multiple factors: the existence of an interventionist culture, a sense of urgency, a minimum of empathy towards the country or the cause justifying the intervention, and, of course, the existence of resources that are considered, rightly or wrongly, sufficient and well-adapted.

A French example

But more than “when,” it is a question of “how” — the two being often inextricably linked. Intervening alone can have many benefits, including the rapidity of execution, which often leads to efficient operations. The French army was not unhappy to end up alone in Mali. On the other hand, although it can slow down the operations schedule, forming a coalition gives the intervention more legitimacy, and helps share the costs and risks between the various operators.

It is likely that France, which after the Mali operation has engaged in the Central African Republic in a much more uncertain conflict, would now prefer having some support — for reasons related to costs and resources as well as geopolitics. No one wants to share success, but no one wants to end up alone in a potential deadlock either.

America’s failure — in Iraq and in Syria — should be considered the West’s failure as a whole, even though Washington’s share of responsibility is unquestionably the largest.

Failure is generally the result of the interaction between three main factors that are almost always the same: arrogance, ignorance and indifference. Arrogance leads to overestimating one’s capacities and to underestimating the enemy’s capacity for resistance. It is all too easy to win the war but lose the peace.

“Democracy in Baghdad will lead to peace in Jerusalem,” a slogan of the American neo-conservatives, took a disastrous turn in Iraq.

Arrogance is almost always the result of ignorance. What do we know about the cultures and histories of the populations we want to save from chaos and dictators? Yesterday’s colonial officers, who drew lines in the sand to create the borders of the new empires and states, turned their nose up at the local religious and tribal complexities. Today, the situation may be worse still. Sheer ignorance prevails.

Finally, there is the sin of indifference. Of course, the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is worrying Washington, thus leading to closer ties between the U.S. and Iran regarding Iraq. But the starting point was, in Syria, the U.S.’s refusal to take its responsibilities.

The result is clear: a double defeat, strategic and ethical, for the West. Washington has brought a resounding diplomatic victory to Moscow and has allowed Bashar al-Assad to stay in power.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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