Month: March 2011

Another BIG Friday

The President of Syria has thumbed his nose at the protesters, suggesting that they are operating on an Israeli agenda. After much vacillating and many negotiations, the President of Yemen has called for his supporters to rally in Sanaa tomorrow, a day when the opposition is also planning another mass rally in the capital. Gaddafi’s favorite Foreign Minister has defected in London and other regime stalwarts are thought to be on their way, even as the rebels lose ground to his forces in eastern Libya and the CIA tries to train them into a more effective fighting force.

Tomorrow promises to be a big day. Will Syrians respond en masse to the President’s provocation? Will the opposition in Yemen push the vacillating president past the tipping point? Is the Gaddafi regime near collapse?

It would be easy to be cynical and suggest that the answer to these three questions is “no.” It is not likely to be “yes” to all three on the same day. I’m more inclined to hedge a bit.

Maybe the best bet is on clashes tomorrow in Sanaa. The more nonviolent they can keep it, the better the chance for the protesters to win a confrontation. Violence will evoke a violent response on the part of the security forces, and in a violent confrontation the protesters lose. President Saleh would appear to have more than nine lives. He definitely wins the survivor prize so far, but nine is a finite number and he is certainly close to it.

Syrians have long given Bashar al Assad the benefit of more doubt than can seriously be alleged to exist. They really haven’t even reached the point of asking for his departure. They stop short of that by asking for suspension of the emergency laws that prop up his regime. He has responded violently and likely will again tomorrow. Numbers of demonstrators, and non-violent discipline, will be vital to the outcome. Whatever residual support for him the Americans (and Israelis) harbor, on grounds that he provides stability, should by now have been dispelled: he is as bad as his father, and likely as violent too. His father killed 20,000 at Hama.

Libya is the great uncertainty. By all rights, Gaddafi should be gone already. But he holds on in Tripoli and has again fought back the rebel advance. The Americans are loudly debating whether to move ahead with arming the rebels, in accordance with a covert action “finding” that the President has already signed. I suppose they expect this noisy display to scare him. He is definitely frightened, but that makes him hold on tighter. There is no way he can stay on in Libya if he loses this fight, and he knows that sooner or later justice will find him if he leaves.

Maybe none of these issues will be decided tomorrow, but it would certainly be a fine trifecta if all three went down on April Fools’ Day.

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Disturbing, not disappointing

That’s the best that can be said about President Bashar al Assad’s speech today, in which he blamed the demonstrations in Syria on foreign conspiracies, accused his opponents of having an Israeli agenda, and promised, once again, still unspecified reforms.  No lifting of the emergency laws, no opening of the political space to parties other than his Ba’ath, no moves against corruption. Emphasis on stability and the economy, not on opening the political system.

Now it is up to the Syrians to respond.  Their first real opportunity will be Friday, when it is hard for the regime to prevent people from gathering for prayers.  But one lady already took her shot:

I wonder what happened to her thereafter.

Can anyone still be disappointed?  The guy is absolutely consistent in avoiding serious reform.  It’s not disappointing, it’s disturbing. The people it should disturb most are John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, who have been at pains to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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Bashar’s challenge

Before I could get this piece up, Bashar had spoken.  He flunked the test.  Syria is in play.  Will its youth stand up to be counted?

The Syrian cabinet has resigned and President Bashar al Assad is scheduled to speak to the nation today. But he was supposed to do it yesterday too, so who knows?

I assume he isn’t fooled by all those pro-government “demonstrators” in the streets yesterday. He has a tall order to fill: convincing his people that this time he is serious about reform. He may never have merited their confidence, but there is something in the Syrians that holds on to the hope that he’ll prove the modernizer he claims to be. If he disappoints once again, it won’t be long before he follows Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi into a battle with his own people that he can only lose. The first skirmishes have already been fought.

For some reason that is difficult to fathom, Washington has also grown attached to the notion that Bashar may be more part of the solution than part of the problem.  John Kerry was quite explicit about this last week at the Carnegie Endowment, and Hillary Clinton has been not far behind. Some even seem to view him as an asset in the effort to make peace with Israel, a hope he (following in his father’s footsteps) has repeatedly dashed.

Perhaps the only thing that could make me think twice about this is an Elliot Abrams op/ed denouncing Bashar in such stentorian terms that you’ve got to wonder whether you’ve joined the wrong team.  The specific measures Abrams proposes amount to denouncing Syria in every available forum and trying to hold Damascus accountable for its crimes.

I can certainly support that, but withdrawing the U.S. Ambassador would be silly.  It accomplished nothing when the Bush Administration did it and would accomplish nothing now, except to deprive the protesters of an important point of reference, one that can help to ensure the regime feels the scrutiny of the international community for its offenses against them.

Helena Cobban suggests a middle ground.  Hoping to avoid Iraq-like chaos in Syria, she hopes the Turks will be persuasive with Bashar and convince him to accommodate legitimate demands of the protesters.  Clear commitments and careful monitoring she thinks could steer a Syria still led by Bashar in the right direction.

I have my doubts, but we’ll find out soon enough.  If Bashar is as bad as Abrams says, he will fall short in his speech by failing to lift the emergency and other laws that support his repressive state, by refusing to open up the political system to competition, and by trying to maintain the monopoly his family and cronies have on corruption.  Syria’s youth will then have its opportunity.  Let’s hope they are as ready for it as the Tunisians and the Egyptians.  And let’s hope they keep it non-violent, because one Libya is already too many for most Americans.


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At last some post-war thinking

Michelle Kelemen on NPR today says the London conference will discuss post-war plans, and the Secretary of State met there with a representative of the Libyan opposition, contrary to what had been foreseen. The Transitional National Council is said to have issued a statement promising a constitution and free elections that includes the following:

there is “no alternative to building a free and democratic society and ensuring the supremacy of international humanitarian law and human rights declarations.”

The locution is a bit backhanded, but still all to the good.

The President last night was at pains to emphasize that regime change by military means would be a mistake, because that is what we did in Iraq and look what a mess it got us into.  Alfred North Whitehead would have called this a “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”  What caused the mess was inappropriate, inadequate and incomplete transition planning, corrected by a hastily arranged and ineffectual occupation.

We are at risk of committing at least the first part of this mistake in Libya (I trust no one will occupy, pretty much no matter what happens).  The President is correct that the United States can duck primary responsibility for the reconstruction of Libya.  That belongs to the Transitional National Council (TNC).  The Europeans should provide most of the support, since they are close neighbors to Libya, which supplies a significant portion of their oil and gas.

But there is no substitute for American leadership in ensuring that this process gets off to a good start.  Washington is sending diplomats to Benghazi to establish liasion with the TNC.  This is important, even if late.  I hope the Europeans, including the European Council and Commission, are doing likewise. Keeping Washington and Brussels on the same page is vital.

The other big piece of the diplomatic puzzle is getting Gaddafi out of there.  Military pressure is indispensable in doing this.  If the battle for Sirte turns into a stalemate, it will be much harder to convince Gaddafi and his family to board.  The President said our allies would keep the pressure on, even as the U.S. lightens its military activities.  I hope that is going to happen.

Some will regret Gaddafi escaping, but in my view there will be time and place for his accountability.  He is not yet indicted by the International Criminal Court, which I hope has investigators on the ground in Libya.  Remember Charles Taylor:  he was allowed to flee to Nigeria, but arrested not too long thereafter.

Of course it is possible that the Libyans will inflict accountability on Gaddafi and his family in the time-honored way.  That is not in my view a preferred outcome, because it is a bad foundation for the New Libya and could well lead in the direction of replacing Gaddafi rather than changing the regime to the freer and more democratic one the TNC says is unavoidable.

PS: Here, courtesy of The Guardian, is the Interim National Council (aka Transtional National Council) Vision for a Democratic Libya.  First rate, but I fear written in English.  That is not entirely a good sign.



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Still vague on those post-war plans

Here are the comments on the President’s speech that I posted this evening at The Danger Room:

Clear enough to me: atrocities in Benghazi would have reverberated against US interests and values, not only in Libya but elsewhere as well.  Because allies and partners are now picking up the burden, US military and taxpayers will need to do less.  Libyan frozen assets will pay for reconstruction.

He said little about post-war plans, other than Libya is for the Libyans, who should lead the transition.  Gaddafi has to go, but that is not a military task.

The difficult trick now is that transition.  If that goes well, this operation will be remembered well.  If Gaddafi remains, or the transition is botched, it will be remembered badly. We need the diplomats to get Gaddafi out of there.  And we still need those post-war plans, which should include a big assistance role for the Europeans.

In case you missed the speech:

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A Bosnia watcher worries about war

I found this note in my email this morning, from a well-informed Bosnia watcher:

After all the time, money and energy the US has spent on Brcko, it appears that the upcoming Peace Implementation Council meeting in Sarajevo (29-30 March) will see an effort to end Supervision of the independent District of Brcko.

This comes at a time when Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik has begun to make unqualified statements that now is the time for BiH to dissolve; at a time when the Federation is entering its deepest crisis since the 2001 third entity attempt; at a time when there is not only no state government but also no sign of one being formed anytime soon; at a time when most state institutions are either blocked or dysfunctional; and at a time when the centrifugal forces tearing at BiH have begun to accelerate. It also comes on the heels of a rather insulting and arrogant public letter from Dodik to the Brcko Supervisor in which Dodik refused to provide assurances that he would respect the Brcko Final Award or the territorial integrity of Brcko District.

Brcko is important in that it is one of the few real levers we have to influence good behavior, both on the part of Republika Srpska and the Federation. It is also the place where the first shots will probably be fired in the event that BiH breaks up and conflict begins anew. It is the strategic bottleneck for Republika Srpska: without control of Brcko, the main population centers of RS have no contiguous contact with Serbia. Belgrade wants to seek compensation for losing Kosovo in Republika Srpska, and is facing an increasing acquiescence to such an approach from the Brussels bureaucracy.

Brcko is also a major success story in terms of refugee returns and is one of the few areas where substantial numbers of refugees have been able to re-establish their pre-war homes. Should supervision end without a stable, functional Bosnian state government and institutions, and as the situation continues to deteriorate, RS will probably attempt to regain control, and ethnic cleansing would most certainly be one of the outcomes.As such, we should not be considering closing Brcko Supervision for at least another decade and until we see proof of long-term good behavior from Republika Srpska. Yet, for some reason the Peace Implementation Council and the US seem hell-bent on recommending the closure of Brcko Supervision. This is one of those moves that makes one wonder if State Department and the EU are taking crazy pills.

Brcko is truly a game-changer, both for better and for worse. If Brcko goes, we will have started the countdown towards picking up where we left off in 1995.

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