In Syria, There’s Little America Can Do

Hillary Clinton
American secretary of state Hillary Clinton testifies to the House Committee on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, December 2, 2009 (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had “lost legitimacy” after angry mobs attacked the American and French embassies in Damascus on Sunday and Monday. “President Assad is not indispensable,” Clinton added, “and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.”

That may be true but short of invasion, there is very little the United States can do stop Assad’s brutalities or remove him from power. Read more “In Syria, There’s Little America Can Do”

Assad Speaks to Syrian People and Turkey

Syria is not the safest place to travel for anyone interested in taking a relaxing vacation this summer. Despite a dedicated stampede against anti-regime demonstrations across the country, the Syrian government is still not having much success in containing the protest fever. Syrians long accustomed to looking over their shoulders have now broken through the blanket of fear that the government has relied upon to survive over the past forty years. The situation is getting quite testy in Syria’s periphery, particularly near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, which were quiet until a few weeks ago. Over 10,000 Syrian refugees have fled across the border to makeshift camps in Turkey, dragging the Turkish government into Syria’s internal conflict.

Recognizing that time may not be on his side, President Bashar al-Assad addressed the Syrian people at Damascus University in an attempt to mollify the anger and concerns of millions of his fellow citizens. Before the speech, Assad was hiding from view by remaining silent, even as his military and intelligence agents were killing innocents and razing entire villages. Assad, normally in Syria’s newspapers every single day, was nowhere to be seen in the press. Rumors even surfaced that the Syrian leader was refusing to answer telephone calls from the United Nations Secretary General, which would help explain why the international community is having such a tough time trying to convince him to stop the bloodshed.

But on Monday, June 20, Assad broke his silence, stepped in front of the television cameras and spoke to the Syrian public for close to an hour. Read more “Assad Speaks to Syrian People and Turkey”

Saleh’s Injury, a Wake-Up Call for the West

What was a Yemeni replica of the peaceful demonstrations that had been occurring throughout the Middle East this year turned into a deadly internal conflict last month that is edging closer to an all out civil war.

The crossover occurred two weeks ago when Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, rejected for the third time a peace proposal mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council that would have rewarded him with immunity for stepping down. The country’s most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid (which Saleh’s own tribe is a part of) finally decided that enough is enough. With the blessing of the tribe’s leaders, also Yemen’s wealthiest businessmen, Hashid fighters have begun attacking Saleh’s government with live ammunition.

The battles between Saleh’s security forces and Hashid insurgents have plunged the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, into a state of desperation. Over two hundred people have been killed over the last week of fighting alone with both sides registering casualties. Hundreds of Yemeni families are gathering up their belongings and heading out of the capital city toward towns in the periphery which are experiencing problems of their own.

In a bid to consolidate his authority and eliminate his strongest political rivals, Saleh’s military rained mortars and rockets onto the Hashid leadership compound. None of them were killed though the attack highlighted the steps that Saleh was willing to take to kill his opponents and silence dissent.

The military operation only worsened the situation however. Rather than cow down, tribal fighters approved a retaliatory strike by shelling the president’s palace residence in the heart of the city. Saleh, his prime minister and the speaker of the Yemeni parliament were all injured in the attack. Seven guardsmen were killed and the violence got so out of hand that the White House and American State Department released a statement calling for all sides in the conflict to stand down and implement another ceasefire.

Luckily for the United States, Saleh was not killed in the shelling. For if he was, the administration would have been forced to recraft its Yemen policy virtually overnight.

Washington may be distancing itself from its onetime ally and asking the president to lead a peaceful transition but the death of Saleh would have been a catastrophic blow to the American position. Counterterrorism is America’s top priority in Yemen even if the safety, security and prosperity of the Yemeni people happen to concern the United States as well. Economic reconstruction and the development of strong and resilient governing institutions in Yemen is one way President Barack Obama has attempted to stem the pool of terrorist recruits in the bud. Unfortunately, that strategy has hinged on the hope that Saleh would act responsibly and use his power to bring about political reforms. In the record of the past four months, indeed of the past decade, it is evident that improving the lives of Yemeni citizens is not on Saleh’s “to do list.” Any foreign assistance that is diverted away from the military would strain the patronage network that Saleh has depended on for the past three decades.

The problem for American policy in Yemen is its lack of depth and clarity. Fighting terrorism and preventing extremism from proliferating in Yemen has been the central focus for the past ten years. Supporting Saleh to the hilt, even as the 65 year-old president detained human rights activists and terrorized religious minorities, was a far easier way for the United States to bring this about rather than addressing Yemen’s root insecurities. Building schools, fostering political participation, diversifying Yemen’s economy and redesigning its political structure would take years, if not decades, to achieve. Training Saleh’s army and hoping that they would take the fight to Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is a quicker way of frustrating the terrorists’ plans.

Yemen policy since 9/11 has been to promote a short-term fix to a terrorist threat that has longevity. Indeed in Yemen, extremism is generational, with former Arab resistance fighters telling their children stories about the 1980s Afghan jihad. Their lessons are passed on to grandchildren, creating another wave of recruits for the radical Islamist cause.

Saleh is, or was, an integral part of America’s fix against terrorism in Yemen. Yet his history of combating jihadists is spotty at best. During the 1994 Yemeni civil war, Saleh’s regime enlisted Salafi extremists to fight southern secessionists, to deadly effect. The Yemeni leader has also been known to hype the Al Qaeda threat in the hopes of extracting more money from the United States and the international community.

Saleh’s near-death experience should serve as a warning to American officials. It is time to look to the future. Sooner rather than later, Saleh will be gone and Yemen’s various power centers will begin competing among themselves for a spot in the new government. That new leadership may or may not have the gumption to thoroughly pluck away at Yemen’s multiple problems. Even if there is dedication, Yemen’s fumbling economy assures that these new leaders won’t have the resources to do the job effectively.

Washington has money but not the dedication. Dedication will only come if a new strategy for Yemen is devised, one that is geared toward helping the Yemeni people rather than aiding the Yemeni regime. A post-Saleh Yemen could be a fresh start for both.

Despots Who Fight to the Bitter End

Between Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a whole range of dictators seems bent on fighting to the bitter end. Wikistrat‘s latest CoreGap Weekly Bulletin wonders what to do with such hardheaded despots.

In the face of unprecedented civil unrest, longtime rulers across the Middle East had to chose either to resign or sit it out in the past two months. In Egypt and Tunisia, veteran presidents were ousted after weeks of demonstrations. Hosni Mubarak wouldn’t leave until the military made clear that he had no choice. In the Ivory Coast, it took French peacekeepers to make Laurent Gbagbo accept electoral defeat.

At the same time, the ruling families in Bahrain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia held on to power despite varying degrees of violence. In Syria, the regime has taken to crushing an anti-government revolt with brutal force. In Libya, Colonel Gaddafi perseveres under heavy NATO bombardment.

What do to about these people? Foreign policy realists may be willing to cut a deal with them, notes Wikistrat, so long as their quick departure is achieved and further bloodshed averted. Idealists tend to be uncompromising however, demanding trials and justice that could deter fellow dictators from stepping down.

The more zero-sum the immediate outcome of regime change, the more likely loyalists fight on indefinitely. Before NATO bombs started dropping, Western leaders spoke openly of war crime trials for Gaddafi. To date, no one has formally taken that threat off the table […]

As Mubarak and his sons face criminal charges that could conceivably result in their execution, Gaddafi and his offspring would certainly prefer protracted civil war over a similar fate.

Even if they are caught and dragged before a tribunal, the sentencing of former dictators can incite a whole new wave of violence, certainly in tribal and divided societies as Libya’s — and the Ivory Coast’s. If Gbagbo is tried at the hands of his northern and Muslim successor, we should not be surprised, according to Wikistrat, to see the more urbanized and Christian south rise up again.

Striking a deal for immunity and sanctuary overseas doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of bitter despots either. Deposed leaders are quite capable of rallying loyalists from abroad. “So as Libya heads toward a military stalemate, one has to wonder if Muammar Gaddafi’s departure — absent the willing surrender of his forces, would be all that conclusive.”

Wikistrat does not argue for what it terms “drawn out, Brezhnev like collapse of the ancien régime, where one doddering old fool is replaced like another,” but does remind us that not every country can handle the truth — much less a “truth commission.”

Intervention in Syria Unlikely

As anti-government protests continue in Syria, should the United States lead the way and intervene or abstain from taking action unless called upon to do so by the international community?

There is something to be said for both options, according to Wikistrat‘s Syrian Regime Stability simulation, where analysts from around the world explore the potential outcomes, interests and policy options with regard to the recent unrest.

The turmoil in Syria threatens regional stability, including hard won gains in Iraq. Regime change would certainly be in America’s interest. President Bashar al-Assad has allied his government with Iran and supported terrorism in Lebanon and against Israel. A Syria that is more susceptible to Western, including Israel’s, interests would be welcome.

Leading a military intervention could backfire however. While America’s supportive role in Libya has been criticized at home, a more aggressive involvement would probably have invited the scorn of other great powers, notably China and Russia, and possibly bolstered anti-Americanism across the Middle East.

Unilateral or near exclusive American action in Syria might not even be acceptable to European allies who remember the invasion of Iraq all too well. Britain and France may be urging their American ally to intensify operations in Libya but Germany and Turkey opposed the intervention in the first place and would almost certainly oppose a similar effort in Syria.

Turkey, especially, is in a tough spot. While it has cautiously urged Assad to implement reforms, it hesitates to pick sides in the conflict while the outcome remains so unclear.

The impossibility of predicting what a post-Assad Syria would look like is another complicating factor. Daniel DePetris pointed this out earlier this month, warning that the “sudden removal of Assad and his Alawite dominated regime could ignite a sectarian conflict between Sunnis tired of sitting on the sidelines and Syria’s minorities who have gotten used to governing the state and enjoying the privileges of power.”

It may take another near massacre as was feared in Benghazi to compel the United States to action. The “responsibility to protect” threshold has to remain fairly high, according to the experts at Wikistrat, unless the West intends to get chain ganged into multiple human rights interventions that would increasingly appear to be a neo-imperialist endeavor in the eyes of the Arab world. The possibility of brutal and imminent suppression aside, intervention carries huge risks that America wants to avoid.

Is the Arab Spring a Distraction for America?

Is America’s involvement in Libya a distraction from its core interests in the Middle East? According to Kathleen T. McFarland, it is. “We’re now in the middle of somebody else’s civil war.”

On the Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense argued that the United States better consider their own strategic interests in the region. “It’s not Libya,” she said. “It’s not any of these places.”

America’s foremost interest in the Middle East is to ensure a safe and steady flow of oil from Saudi Arabia and its tiny Gulf neighbors, particularly through the Strait of Hormuz and the Suez Canal.

40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil shipments passes through the Strait of Hormuz every day yet Iran has warned repeatedly that it might seal off the waterway if it feels threatened from the West.

In February of this year, over Israeli objections, Iranian warships for the first time in thirty years passed through the Suez Canal — mere days after longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had been forced to resign in the face of mass anti-government protests.

McFarland predicted that Iran would keep up the pressure and continue to challenge American hegemony by exploiting the Arab unrest. “If we’re already diverted everywhere else, we’re not going to be prepared for it,” she said.

Iran is encircling Israel and undermining Saudi influence, in part by fueling the protests in Bahrain where the Shiite majority is demanding political reform from a Sunni ruling class. Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain last month but the demonstrations continue.

Although Libya may be a distraction for the United States, McFarland criticized their limited involvement in the war. “We have a limited goal. We have limited particiaption, limited time. You know what happens when you do that? You have limited success.” She urged policymakers to define the mission in Libya. If it is regime change, the coalition should do more.

The Obama Administration announced on the same day that it would deploy unmanned drones over Libya to aid in the enforcement of the no-fly zone but American aircraft were no longer attacking armored formations loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

NATO last week requested additional precision fighter jets to minimize civilian casualties while Britain and France have urged their allies to intensify their commitment to the operation. “There is always more to do,” according to British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Why Concessions Hasten a Regime’s Demise

For the second time in two weeks, the Syrian government said that it would end decades of emergency rule and consider the sort of political reforms that protesters were calling for. So why didn’t the people go home?

In Syria, the regime has attempted to suppress dissent with heavy force. In Egypt earlier this year, the authoritarian government of longtime President Hosni Mubarak similarly answered protests with intimidation and violence until the military made clear that it would not shoot at demonstrators. Thus began Egypt’s lame attempt at reconciliation.

Mubarak appointed a vice president for the first time during his thirty year reign who met with members of the opposition and promised the very reforms they had taken to the streets for — changes to the Constitution designed to weaken executive power; the release of political prisoners; the liberalization of the media; anti-corruption efforts. All to no avail. Tens of thousands continued to pour into Cairo’s central Tahrir Square to force Mubarak out of office. He resigned after weeks of unrest, paving the way for a military interim government that scheduled elections for the summer.

The outcome in Syria may be less predictable. Security services there appear to have the stomach for ruthless suppression while people are more fearful of their government than Egyptians were. All the same, the mere occurrence of demonstrations coupled with the regime’s professed willingness to concede to some of their demands has reminded Syrians that their government is not invulnerable.

While President Bashar al-Assad appointed a new cabinet and promised the release of political prisoners in an effort to disarm the protests, the moves suggested a weakness on the part of his government. The overtures may have been largely symbolic — the cabinet has little actual power in Syria while the release of detainees excluded activists who had supposedly committed crimes “against the nation and the citizens” — but they implicitly acknowledged that the people had reason to be dissatisfied.

By suggesting the possibility of reform in the face of mounting civil unrest, the president implicitly acknowledged the very illegitimacy of his regime. Naturally, people did not tone down their demands. Instead, the protests spread.

Assad may still able to avoid the inevitable in the short run but his police state has started to come apart at its seams. The illusion of its power has been crushed. The seemingly omnipotent security apparatus has started showing its human weaknesses. And as the world is watching, the military may think twice about rolling tanks into the streets of Syria’s cities to sustain a dictatorship that certainly has its best days behind it.

If Assad had learned from Mubarak, he would have known that the only way to keep a people oppressed in a time when information spreads so rapidly is with brutal force. The trouble is that in most nations, the people who are supposed to execute such force don’t like to kill and torture and prosecute other people they identify with, at least not for too long.

What Will Happen in Syria?

In another effort to disarm the anti-government protests in his country, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appointed a new cabinet on Thursday and ordered the release of political prisoners. His moves echo the response of fellow Arab autocrats to the unprecedented wave of civil unrest that has swept the Middle East since February.

Assad has also blamed foreign infiltrators for instigating the violence in his country in which at least several hundreds of people have died. His regime does not appear to be crumbling down while demonstrations continue to be suppressed with heavy force.

Despite the violence and the regime’s latest gestures, protesters on Friday did not tone down their demands for political reform. The cabinet has little actual power in Syria while the release of detainees excluded activists who had supposedly committed crimes “against the nation and the citizens.” Read more “What Will Happen in Syria?”

Yemen’s Saleh Following in Mubarak’s Footsteps

If you thought Ali Abdullah Saleh was on the ropes when he had just the Yemeni demonstrators to deal with, think again. The United States, Saleh’s most important financial and military donor outside of Saudi Arabia, are now edging ever closer to the opposition. And if rumors are correct, Obama Administration officials are in modest talks with the Yemeni government and the political opposition to ease Saleh out of power, for good.

Although Yemen is distinct from other Arab states (tribes are vastly more important than the central government and the state is riddled with weapons), one cannot help but compare this latest shift in American policy to the hasty response during the Egyptian protests two months ago. Read more “Yemen’s Saleh Following in Mubarak’s Footsteps”

The Temptation of Another Intervention

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in Paris, France, December 9, 2010
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in Paris, France, December 9, 2010

Now that the “Arab Spring” has reached the villages and cities of Syria, Bashar al-Assad has, within a few short weeks, met his most challenging obstacle since inheriting the presidency from his father eleven years ago.

Close to one hundred Syrian demonstrators have been killed by regime loyalists and security services over the past week and the reformist wave that originated in the small southern town of Daraa is now escalating into the suburbs of the country’s largest city. Assad has clearly learned from his fellow autocrats by hinting at concessions in the hopes of fracturing the protest movement. Hundreds of demonstrators who were detained since the unrest began were released and Assad’s spokeswoman promised reporters that the Syrian government would consider abolishing the hated 1963 emergency law.

For the United States, putting pressure on the Assad regime is a double edged sword. On the one hand, a downfall or substantial weakening of Assad would give Washington and its Arab allies a significant victory in the Middle East. Syria has long been Iran’s principle ally in the region (since 1979) and the Syrian government has made Israel’s life difficult by pouring money and logistical support into armed Islamist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

At the same time, a post-Assad Syria could very well lead to a number of negative contingencies, all of which could jeopardize the Arab democracy movement.

For starters, Assad and most of his advisors in the military and security forces are Alawites, a small sect of Shia Islam that is a minority in the broader Syrian population. Sunnis, who make up more than 70 percent of the population, have been browbeaten and sidelined by the Assad family for over forty years. A sudden removal of Assad and his Alawite dominated regime could ignite a sectarian conflict between Sunnis tired of sitting on the sidelines and Syria’s minorities who have gotten used to governing the state and enjoying the privileges of power.

Therefore, while the United States would surely like to see one another Middle East troublemaker in the dustbin of history, the Obama Administration should think twice about taking steps to further Assad’s demise. A no-fly zone over Syria in order to protect civilians is out of the question, for the measure would include the bombing runs and cruise missile attacks that continue in Libya today. These actions may have been tolerated on the periphery of the Arab world but it will not be supported by any Arab state in the very heart of the region.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already ruled out a Libya style intervention in Syria. Surprisingly, Clinton commented that a number of American officials in Congress regarded Assad as a reformer — a sign to opposition Republicans that the administration will not pressure Assad in the same forceful way as it did Muammar Gaddafi. Despite Clinton’s assertion, Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman are not backing down from their earlier statements in support of an American response.

There is a divide in the American government as to what the official policy toward Syria’s brutality should be. As the violence ramps up, that divide will only widen and calls for a humanitarian intervention (from both Democrats and Republicans) will likely increase.

However difficult from a political standpoint, the White House has to refrain from using the Libya scenario as a precedent. Assad and his fellow Alawites will not willingly seize power without a fight. And that fight will be just a bloody as the battle in Libya, but far more troubling strategically.