Month: January 2013

Should the US save Syria?

While the situation in Syria worsens and the death-toll rises, there is no consensus in Washington on whether the US should intervene to put an end to the Syrian humanitarian crisis.  The McCain Institute this week launched its “Debate and Decision Series” by gathering four experts on the Middle East and US foreign policy to debate “Should the United States Save Syria?”

The “yes camp,” which supported US intervention, included Robert Kagan and Leon Wieseltier.  The “no camp,” which believed US intervention would be a grave mistake, included Joshua Landis and Aaron David Miller.  CNN’s Elise Labott moderated and Senator McCain’s offered a short introduction, reiterating his belief that the Syria crisis will strong affect the region.

The “Yes Camp”:

Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow at Brookings’ Center on Foreign Policy, member of the Foreign Affairs Policy Board of Secretary Clinton, and a regular columnist for the Washington Post, underscored the importance of the Syrian crisis to the US.  While past US interventions were motivated either by strategic interests or on humanitarian grounds, Syria is a place where strategic interests and humanitarian purposes converge.  If the US does not intervene, the cost will be very high since new threats to US national security will emerge.  Failed states have become breeding grounds for terrorism:

the consequence to us [the American people], directly, of Syria becoming a failed state has huge costs.

Leon Wiesletier, the editor of The New Republic, said the US cannot afford Obama’s policy of transforming the US into a “non-internationalist state.”  Not only does the Syrian crisis involve US responsibility to end a deep humanitarian crisis, but lack of intervention will also put US values into question. In strategic terms,

there could be no bigger strategic blow to Iran and its allies than the overthrow of the Assad regime.

The US should intervene to overthrow of the Assad regime and stop the genocide, prevent the jihadists from winning, and arm the secular opposition.

The “No Camp”:

Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a frequent blogger on the Syrian crisis, strongly opposed US intervention on several grounds:

  • America should not involve itself in what has become an ethnic war since “a new ethnic balance is taking place in the Middle East,” and it should not “pick winners especially in ethnic wars;”
  • Only Syrians can save Syria  from radicalization.  The US failed in Iraq and Afghanistan when it tried to nation-build in those countries;
  • If the US intervenes and then leaves, as in previous cases, the situation will just get messier;
  • Decapitating the Assad regime now would destabilize Syria; it is not clear that earlier intervention would have avoided the current difficulties.

Aaron David Miller, former negotiator and advisor on Middle East issues in the Department of State under several administrations, said the US must realize that it cannot do everything and that it will be incapable of managing intervention in Syria.  He highlighted the risks of getting itself in a crisis that might not end as planned:

there is a correlation between our miscalculated adventures and our own broken-house.

If Washington intervenes to ensure that a pro-US government emerges in Syria, this will delegitimize the new regime.  The Arab Spring is legitimate because it is controlled by the Arabs themselves.  Besides, Aaron said,

so much blood has flowed that it is impossible to think of a negotiated settlement now.

The Rebuttals and Conclusions:

Kagan found Landis’ argument that decapitating the Assad regime would “destabilize Syria” to be illogical since the situation is already unstable.  He criticized the latter’s focus on US failures in Iraq and Afghanistan as a measure for future US failures.  US history extends before 2001 and 2003; it has a “mixed record,” just as any great power does. Kagan rejected Landis’ claim that the ethnic nature of the conflict will inevitably mean American failure.  US intervention in Bosnia has led to stability.  Kagan claimed that doing something is better than nothing.  The US should not wait till Assad deploys his chemical weapons against the Syrian people.

Wiesletier attacked Landis’ claim that the US should not get itself into a conflict that the Syrians should resolve by saying that “other powers are already in the middle:”  Russia and Iran are already determining the outcome.

Landis rebutted the arguments of the “yes camp” by stating that contrary to Wiesletier’s claim that US intervention would prevent the jihadists and help advance the secular, pro-Western opposition, the US is incapable of placing whom it likes as the leaders of any new regime that will emerge.  The Islamists are on top.  The “Harvard-educated opposition” will not take the lead.

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Some good news

There is good news this morning:  French forces in Mali have taken the northern town of Kidal, donors have pledged over $450 million for Mali and $1.2 billion for Syria.  These are not small things, but they are not the end of the story either.

In Mali, there is now the question of Azawad, the largely desert area northwest of Kidal where Tuareg live.  They have been seeking independence–it was their rebellion that touched off the Islamist insurgency that in turn precipitated the French intervention.  The Islamists have not fought the French advance.  Instead they have retreated northward.  The question now is whether the Tuareg will help the French do them in, or at least expel them from Mali.  France is already calling for the Mali government to talk with the Tuareg, hoping of course to keep them on side even if independence is out of the question.

A second important issue is deployment of African troops under UN command to Mali.  The UN Security Council has already approved a mission, but organizing it, financing it and deploying it will be a big challenge.  The French will presumably take the lead in trying to make this happen, as they would like out before anyone discovers that their troops might be an easy target.  The Mali government and Tuareg insurgents are likely to want to keep the French in, each hoping that they will gain advantage in a negotiation over the north that is not likely to go smoothly.

In Syria, the gigantic pledges at yesterday’s donors’ conference in Kuwait are at least a sign that the world is appalled at what is happening, but humanitarian assistance is really not an adequate response to Bashar al Asad’s homicidal behavior.  The head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz al Khatib, is offering to meet the Syrian regime in various Middle Eastern capitals.  That is an offer unlikely to be taken up.  UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is thought to be close to giving up on the search for a political solution, as Kofi Annan did before him.

What is needed in Syria is the kind of decisive move that France took in Mali.  The trouble is no one has come up with what that might be.  Boots on the ground aren’t going to happen.  A no-fly zone might be a big help to the rebels, but President Obama is showing no appetite for it, fearing the Russians would retaliate by denying him support for the Northern Distribution Network for Afghanistan and the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran.  The Israelis yesterday reportedly attacked a convoy in Syria most likely thought to consist of missiles headed for delivery to Hizbollah in Lebanon.  That kind of pinprick from that source is not going to make a difference.

Unequivocal support for a new government in Syria, appointed by the National Coalition, is about the best proposition out there these days.  It will guarantee nothing, but at least it would signal determination to make the inevitable happen:  the fall of Bashar al Asad.

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Costly and insufficient

President Obama today sharply increased humanitarian aid to Syria, by $155 million:

Welcome though it may be, increased humanitarian aid will do nothing to solve the real problem in Syria, which is at its heart political. The regime has decided to stay in power by using whatever force is necessary.

Fred Hof argues that what Syria really needs now is an alternative government.  The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is trying to form one.  But the Coalition is hesitating because it worries about failure.  If the international community does not provide sufficient resources, a revolutionary government could demonstrate weakness rather than strength, ringing a death knell to the two-year struggle against Asad.

President Obama is rightly worried about getting involved militarily in Syria, a move that could endanger Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran.  But what Fred is arguing does not require American boots on the ground, Patriot missiles in the air or even boatloads of arms supplies.  It would only require that Washington recognize a revolutionary government and supply it with financial resources, perhaps $50-100 million for its own first-year start up costs as well as channeling a good part of the humaniarian aid through whatever mechanisms it is able to gin up.

This to me is a no-brainer.  If we’ve already accepted the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, the government it forms must the legitimate government of Syria.  I’m sure there are a thousand legal issues that would need to be resolved, but it makes no sense to allow those to stand in the way of making the political moves required to bring the regime in Syria to the earliest possible end.  And political moves require some financial backing, albeit much less than feeding, sheltering and clothing millions of people.

President Obama obviously knows what is going on in Syria–he refers to some of the worst behavior of the regime in the White House video.  And he must know how hollow his own presentation sounds to those who are suffering inside Syria.  If not, he should count the thumbs down on his video.  Now what he needs to do is put some money and political support behind an alternative Syrian government, before it is too late.


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Round 1 to the French

As the residents of Timbuktu and Gao celebrate their French liberation from Islamist extremists, it is tempting to think that things are now okay and we can go back to ignoring Mali. Nothing could be further from the truth.  If Mali was a problem last week, it is still a problem this week too.  What the French have done is to chase the extremists northwards, into even more forbidding terrain.  They were not resoundingly defeated.  If given the chance, there they will regroup.

Here’s your primer on the main jihadi players.  Get ready for the pop quiz.  None of them sound like people who will be giving up the cause anytime soon.

One key to what happens now are the Tuareg.  Their National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) precipitated the current difficulties with a rebellion last spring that chased the Malian army from the north, with cooperation from al Qaeda-linked Islamist extremists.  But the Tuareg fell out with the Islamists.  They will now presumably try to take advantage of the Islamist defeat at the hands of the French to reassert control over “Azawad” and continue their push for independence.

Will the French contest the Tuareg?  They are more likely to try to get them on side.  They will be relieved if the Tuareg oust the Islamists and hope thereafter to broker a deal between the Tuareg and the central government in Bamako.  Will the Tuareg do in the Islamists?  Hard to tell.  It is not clear they can, even if they try.  The jihadi betrayed them first time around, and proved a more formidable fighting force, but if independence is their objective the Tuareg cannot really expect to get it from the French, who support the government in Bamako.   Nor from the trans-national jihadi.

Meanwhile, the African Union is pledging to solve Africa’s problems.  With the French army retaking northern Mali and conflicts raging in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and elsewhere, that seems unlikely.  But it is still worth considering the proposition of getting African forces more engaged than they have been so far in Mali.  There is already UN Security Council authorization.  The question is whether the Africans can get their act together to field a serious force, as they appear to have done in Somalia.

The French army seems to have won this round.  Good for them, and for Malians who like music.  But the war is unlikely to be over.

PS:  Here’s a piece I participated in for Voice of America that tries to make similar points:

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What Obama should do for Syria

President Obama in an interview with The New Republic published yesterday, discussed in more explicit terms than usual how he makes foreign policy decisions.  Commentary has focused on what academics are interested in:  is he a realist or an idealist?  I see no evidence in what he said to suggest that he should be put in exclusively either category.  Dan Drezner does (“national interest and security trumps liberal values every day of the week and twice on Sundays”), but then his own editor appends a note that this is a false dichotomy.  The editor is correct.

The far more interesting part of the President’s interview includes his comments on Syria:

…I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?

I find the reference to Afghanistan particularly telling.  What’s that about?

It’s about the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a logistical network that enables a substantial supply of material to U.S. forces in Afghanistan from the north (without going through Pakistan).  It is also important to the withdrawal of U.S. forces and their extraordinary volume of stuff.  The NDN depends on Russian cooperation, which the President clearly fears will be restricted or even ended should he take a more proactive stance on Syria.

The President’s other concerns are also valid.  In particular the aftermath of military intervention is precisely what he should worry about, given the course of post-war events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

What he does not mention, but I am certain is on his mind, is Iran.  The civil war in Syria is in some ways a proxy war between the West (counting Turkey as in that category) and Iran, which is Bashar al Asad’s most important ally (more important even than Russia).  The United States from this persepective is “bleeding” Iran in Syria, where Tehran is compelled to commit men and money to prop up Bashar.  For Washington to commit military force in Syria would risk the loss of Russia’s support not only for the NDN but also in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran and call into question U.S. commitment to military action against Tehran in case those talks fail.  The President is keeping his powder dry while watching Iran weaken itself.  That’s not a bad course of action both from a realist and an idealist perspective.

What it does not do however is explain the ineffectiveness of American civilian assistance to the Syrian opposition, amply discussed on NPR this morning:

This is absurd.  The President needs to refocus his attention on the civilian side of America’s engagement with Syria.  He may well be right to hesitate in using military force.  But there is no excuse for failing to provide 100% support to the Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces that Washington helped to create.

If, like me, you are wondering if the 60 Minutes interview with the President and Secretary of State Clinton provides more enlightenment, you’ll be disappointed.  It’s just a hug fest.

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Peace picks this week

 1. The Nuclear Issue: Why is Iran Negotiating?

Date and Time: January 28, 9 am-11 pm

Address: Woodrow Wilson Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20004

Speakers: Michael Adler, Bijan Khajehpour, and Alireza Nader

Description: Three top experts in the field will discuss Iran’s domestic, foreign policy, and nuclear challenges.

Register for this event here:

2. America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace:  POSTPONED

Date and Time: January 28, 11 am-1 pm

Address: US Institute of Peace, 2301 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.

Speakers: Daniel Kurtzer, William Quandt, Shibley Telhami, and Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen

Description: As President Barack Obama is sworn in for his second term, and in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection, many warn that time is running out for the two-state solution. On the occasion of its publication, David Ignatius will join three of the authors of ‘The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace’ and USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen to discuss their own views on whether and why that door is closing, and what the next Obama administration can do to keep it open. 
’The Peace Puzzle’ was written by Daniel C. Kurtzer, Scott B. Lasensky, William B. Quandt, Steven L. Spiegel, and Shibley Z. Telhami and co-published by USIP Press and Cornell University Press. It offers a uniquely objective account and assessment of the American role in the peace process over the last two decades, concluding with 11 recommendations for the next administration to strengthen its role in resolving the conflict. While the tone of the book remains optimistic, the authors question whether the ‘determined, persistent, creative, and wise’ American diplomacy and leadership that have ushered in breakthroughs in the past can be recaptured and whether the lessons learned from two decades of failures will be embraced. 
Please join us for this discussion with David Ignatius on the prospects for a breakthrough in the peace process and the lessons offered in ‘The Peace Puzzle.’

Register for this event:

This event will be webcast live beginning at 11:00am on January 28, 2013 at

3.    The Rise of Islamists: Challenges to Egypt’s Copts

Date and Time: January 28, 4:30pm – 6:00pm

Address:  Institute of World Politics, 1521 16th Street NW Washington, DC

Speakers: Nina Shea (Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Religious Freedom 
Hudson Institute) and Samuel Tadros (Research Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom 
Hudson Institute)

Description: This event is sponsored by IWP’s Center for Culture and Security. 
An international human-rights lawyer for over thirty years, Nina Shea joined Hudson Institute as a Senior Fellow in November 2006, where she directs the Center for Religious Freedom. Shea has served as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for 13 years. Her many writings include widely-acclaimed reports on Saudi Arabia’s curriculum of hatred and the book Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford University Press, 2011). She co-authored the forthcoming book, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson, March 2013). 
Samuel Tadros is a Research Fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Prior to joining Hudson in 2011, Tadros was a Senior Partner at the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth, an organization that aims to spread the ideas of classical liberalism in Egypt. His many articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, National Review, World Affairs, and the Weekly Standard. He is the author of the forthcoming book: Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity.

Register for this event here:

4.      Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia

Date and Time: January 29, 12:00 to 1:00 pm

Address: Middle East Institute, Boardman Room 1761 N Street, NW, Washington D.C. 20036

Speaker: Dr. Joseph A. Kéchichian

Moderator: Kate Seelye

Description: At a time when many wonder how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will adapt to challenging regional crises, confront exacerbating internal problems, and manage sensitive ties with leading world powers, Riyadh is on the docket to also ensure a smooth royal succession.  Critics of the Kingdom’s reform policies allege that Riyadh is ill-suited to face the massive social, economic and political challenges it faces, some even anticipating its total collapse.  Joseph A. Kéchichian argues, however, that serious reforms are under way, including changes in the judicial sector, a genuine “National Dialogue,” and an inclination within the royal family to expand the boundaries of political debate. Kéchichian will also examine relations between the Al Sa’ud and the conservative clerical establishment, and offer an assessment of the legacy of King ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz as prospects for a passing of power to a new generation become clearer.

Register for this event here:

5.      Al Qaeda Country: Why Mali is Important

Date and Time: January 29, 2013 
1:00 PM – 2:00 PM

Address: Lindner Family Commons, Room 602
1957 E Street, NW

Speakers: Peter Chilson (Associate Professor of English, Washington State University ) and 
David Rain (Associate Professor of Geography and International Affairs, George Washington University)

Description: Prizewinning author Peter Chilson is one of the few Westerners to travel to the Mali conflict zone. There he found a hazy dividing line between the demoralized remnants of the former regime in the south and the new statelet in the north – Azawad – formed when a rebellion by the country’s ethnic Tuareg minority as commandeered by jihadi fighters. 
In this inaugural lecture of the African Research and Policy Group of the Institute for Global and International Studies, Chilson will lay out the lines of conflicting interest in Mali as some of the world’s great forces take notice. He is the author of the recent book, We Never Knew Exactly Where: Dispatches from the Lost Country of Mali.

Register for this event here:

6.      Should the United States Save Syria?

Date and Time: January 30, 5:00pm – 6:30pm

Address: The U.S. Navy Memorial Burke Theater

701 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, D.C. 20004

Speakers: Robert Kagan (Brookings Institution), Leon Wieseltier (The New Republic), Joshua Landis (University of Oklahoma), Aaron David Miller (The Wilson Center)

Moderator: Elise Labott (CNN)

Description: In the best American tradition of open inquiry, spirited discussion and practical action, the McCain Institute is introducing a series of structured, reasoned foreign policy debates aimed at developing practical policy options. The debates will include seasoned experts and practitioners of varying affiliations and perspectives. They will be distinctly non-partisan, aiming to look forward at future policy choices, not to look backward to criticize. Audience participation is strenuously encouraged.

Register for this event here:

7.      After the Jordan Elections: Challenges Ahead for the Hashemite Kingdom

Date and Time: February 1, 12:00-1:00 pm

Address: Middle East Institute, Boardman Room 1761 N Street, NW, Washington D.C. 20036

Speakers: Leslie Campbell and Danya Greenfield

Moderator: Kate Seelye

Description: The Middle East Institute is proud to host Leslie Campbell, senior associate and regional director for the Middle East, and Danya Greenfield, deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, for an assessment of the Jordanian elections and an examination of the political challenges ahead for Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Both Campbell and Greenfield monitored the parliamentary elections on January 23rd and return to Washington from Amman with fresh insights about the implications of Jordan’s democratic reform efforts and the  pressures faced by King Abdullah II as he seeks to address growing frustration with his rule.

Register for this event here: After the Jordan Elections: Challenges Ahead for the Hashemite Kingdom | Middle East Institute.

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