Bashar al Assad, Syria’s beleaguered president continues his crackdown, despite growing international condemnation and pressure. What has happened to Muammar Qaddafi, who is hiding somewhere, and Hosni Mubarak, who is on trial, has likely given him renewed determination to avoid a similar situation. The only way he knows to avoid it is to use violence to repress the demonstrations, which continue even if they are not gaining headlines during this Libya week. The regime even took the trouble to injure a cartoonists hands, a bizarre but telling acknowledgement of its own impotence against the humor and spirit of the protest movement.
The opposition claims to still be moving toward forming a Syrian National Council, but this week’s meeting in Istanbul does not appear to have been a brilliant success. I’m not sure what the problem is, but in my view unity is overrated. There is no reason the opposition today should agree on much more than getting rid of Bashar. There will be time enough in the future to quarrel over politics.
Nor do I think the lack of “leadership” is really a big problem. The demonstrators have been remarkably effective at coordination and coherence without clear leaders. United is important, but regimes enjoy decapitating movements. Only when the time comes to negotiate do they really need an empowered group to undertake that thankless task.
What the Syrian opposition needs now is a program. What are they going to do if Bashar does step aside? The Libyan Transitional National Council did itself a great service when it put out its “constitutional charter,” which included a political roadmap for the next year. It gained some support inside Libya, but just as importantly it enabled the internationals to say they know what the Libyans want. Something like that is needed from the Syrians.
Next week the international community needs to move ahead with European Union sanctions targeting Syria’s energy sector. That would be a serious contribution to depriving Bashar of the resources he needs to continue his brutal repression. But it really isn’t sufficient. Turkey needs to step up its game, which once seemed headed in the direction of toughening but somehow went flaccid in the last ten days or so. There is a lot at stake for Turkey: its “no problems with neighbors” policy is teetering, and it gets 20% of its gas supplies for its booming economy from Syria’s principal supporter, Iran.
There isn’t a lot else out there, though David Schenker offers a few more “incremental” (that means small I think) ideas. I fear that we are going to end up with a long-term stalemate in Syria: the demonstrators unable to unseat Bashar, Bashar unable to repress the demonstrations. This situation will bleed the finances of both Syria and Iran, but it will also bleed the protesters and increase the likelihood of a chaotic sectarian breakdown in Syria.
The Syrian regime continues to portray the uprising as an armed rebellion of terrorists. That is clearly untrue, as the Syrian protesters have chosen a nonviolent course from the first. They are fired up about dignity. The demonstrators haven’t got a lot more than daring, cleverness, unity, and amazing good humor on their side. And me, I’m on their side too!
PS: The question on some minds today is why not have an international intervention in Syria, since it worked so well in Libya? In my way of thinking, it did not work well in Libya: it worked in the end, but only at a high cost in lives and other destruction.
Just as important: the Russians, who have a naval base at Latakia on the Syrian coast, are not going to allow a Security Council resolution to pass authorizing force (they haven’t even let one pass denouncing the regime violence), the Arab League is not on board and the topography of hilly Syria weighs against effectiveness from the air. The Syrians are likely going to have to sustain their efforts until the security forces turn on Bashar and tell him they are not prepared to continue on his behalf.
PS: Ali Ferzat, the cartoonist the Syrian government felt it had to beat up, responds eloquently today with this:
PPS: The UN humanitarian mission to Syria has completed its visit and is calling for protection of civilians, who are under “constant threat.” Not bad for a group shepherded around by government minders.
I discussed current events in Syria and the Obama Administration call for Bashar al Assad to step aside, along with a bit of Libya, this morning on C Span’s Washington Journal:
Here are the notes I did for myself on Syria in preparation:
1. The contest continues:
- Military assault is undiminished, security forces still united
- Demonstrators trying to mark beginning of the end
2. The international community is speaking louder and with a more unified voice
- U.S. “step aside” echoed in Europe, Turkey had already given “final warning”
- Arab ambassadors withdrawn: Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi, Tunisia
- Europe getting ready to bar oil imports
- UN fact finding report “scathing”: torture, murder, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, supposedly going this weekend (Navi Pillay and Valerie Amos)
- IAEA found NPT violation
- Unrelated, I think, to current events: Syria disqualified from 2014 World Cup!
- Diplomatic observers possible
3. Bashar still has internal and external pillars intact
- Iran solid, Russia still protecting in UNSC
- Army and business community still backing him
- Republican Guard (10k) and 4th armored division show no signs of cracking: Deraa, Banias, Homs, Idlib
- Shabbiha still active
4. Opposition strong
- Widespread protests
- Still relatively weak in Aleppo and Damascus, but growing
- Good unity: several iterations, now Syrian National Council
- Good nonviolent discipline, though some arms
- Good planning
While my twitterfeed remains skeptical that the U.S. has any leverage to get Bashar al Assad to step aside, I think the Administration put on a pretty good diplomatic show in the last day or two, with more to come. In addition to the US moves, the UN published a fact-finding report that Colum Lynch appropriately describes as “scathing.” The Europeans and Turkey seem to be lining up to say the right things.
More important is what Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Europeans do now. The Administration is hinting that the Europeans will block their own Syrian oil imports. This they can do because it is not much oil, but it accounts for more than a quarter of Syria’s revenue. Turkey’s National Security Council today called for democratic change in Syria, but that likely won’t have much impact as the Foreign Minister has already issued several final warnings to Bashar al Assad. What is needed is some action from Turkey in blocking trade or investment, which would signal clearly to Syrian businesspeople that the end is near. The Saudis can make life hard for Bashar in many ways, not least just by indicating that it supports the protesters, as the King did late last week.
New York will be the center of the international action the next few days. The Americans are pushing a Security Council resolution. The Human Rights Council is to meet Monday to discuss the fact-finding report. That should provide an occasion for lambasting the Syrian regime. Legitimacy counts, even for autocracies. When the UN is taking you to task for murdering your own citizens with their hands tied behind their backs, legitimacy comes into question.
Today in Syria is also key. Already this week there have been demonstrations in Aleppo, Syria’s largest and most important commercial city. A big turnout there and in Damascus would confirm that the judgment that it is time for Bashar to step aside. How widespread the demonstrations are will also count. The international moves may elicit a big response among the Syrians.
What we can’t really know is how all this will affect the small circle around Bashar al Assad. It would take only a few of them to abandon his cause for Syria to turn quickly in a new direction.
The problem is what to do with Bashar. Pressure is building for the Security Council to refer him to the International Criminal Court. I am not as opposed to an indictment as many diplomats, who believe it would only strengthen his resolve to hold on to power. That it may do, but it may also make those who work for him begin to wonder whether carrying out his orders to kill civilians is a smart thing to do.
I have my doubts though that evidence can be gathered in a time frame that would make an indictment meaningful. More likely, a referral would be followed by a long delay, which would make matters worse rather than better (remember the Hariri case, and the case against President Bashir of Sudan?).
So what happens next? Bashar al Assad won’t step aside until his security forces crack more dramatically than they have so far. I don’t know anyone who can even pretend to know when that will happen, but the American/Turkish/Saudi/European/UN pressure being brought to bear this week is pushing things in the right direction.
Paul Pillar, in a piece published yesterday by The National Interest focused on Gary Locke, the new American ambassador to Beijing, notes:
The incidental influence that the United States exerts simply through people around the world observing its behavior is consistently underestimated, just as the influence the United States can exert intentionally by exercising its economic, military, or other instruments of hard power tends to be overestimated.
My twitterfeed is underestimating America’s “incidental influence” on events in Syria. I don’t know whether it will be enough, but it will make Bashar al Assad very uncomfortable for the next few days, at the very least.
It has taken longer than Syria-watchers predicted, but President Obama today finally called on Bashar al Assad to “step aside” in Syria. This is an interesting formulation that implies he could remain nominally president but allow reforms to move forward. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon seems to have also taken that line yesterday with Bashar in a phone call.
Let’s look at the options from Bashar’s perspective. Egyptian President Mubarak stepped down and now finds himself on trial. Libyan non-president Qaddafi refused to step down and now is fighting a war he is likely to lose. Yemen’s President Saleh is recovering from wounds his opponents inflicted in retaliation for his military attacks on them, but he has managed to continue to dominate Sanaa from Saudi Arabia, using his son and other loyalists as proxies. Only former Tunisian President Ben Ali is managing an untroubled, but powerless, retirement somewhere in Saudi Arabia. None of those options looks as good as “step aside,” though I have my doubts the protesters would accept Bashar remaining even nominally in power for more than a brief transition period.
President Obama also signed an executive order that
- blocks the property of the Syrian government,
- bans U.S. persons from new investments in or exporting services to Syria, and
- bans U.S. imports of, and other transactions or dealings in, Syrian-origin petroleum or petroleum products.
The trouble of course is that there is little Syrian government property in the U.S., few new investments or service exports to Syria and almost no U.S. import of Syrian oil or oil products.
For President Obama’s new rhetorical line to be effective, other countries–especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Europeans–will need to play hard ball with the Syrian regime. Both the Turks and Saudis have sounded recently as if they are willing to do that, and the Europeans in their own complicated way seem to be moving in the same direction.
Diplomacy is getting other people to do what you want them to do. As many in the blogosphere are noting, Washington’s direct influence on events in Syria is small. President Obama himself said:
The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people. We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.
So that’s where the buck stops: with the Syrian people, who have shown remarkable courage and determination so far. Here they are in Aleppo yesterday:
It’s only been a week or so since I published a Council on Foreign Relations paper on preparing for post-Qaddafi Libya. It looks as if we are going to be there before the end of the month, if not in Tripoli itself in most of the rest of the country. A high-level defection, talks in Tunisia between the regime and the rebels, an ineffectual Scud missile launch by Qaddafi’s forces and rebel penetration of more western Libyan towns all signal that Qaddafi is near the end of his road.
That will of course be cause for celebration, but the really tough challenge–a successful transition to a more democratic regime that can govern and defend united Libya while respecting the rights of all its people–lies ahead. The Transitional National Council (TNC) that Europe and the United States have recognized as the legitimate governing authority has good intentions and even some good plans, but implementation in the confused period after the fall of Qaddafi will be difficult at best.
It seems to me that the international community is already well behind the curve. It needs a new UN Security Council resolution laying out the goals, parameters and leadership for the post-Qaddafi period. The EU, preoccupied though it is with the problems of the euro, needs to be thinking about deployment of a paramilitary police force at TNC request to ensure public order in Tripoli, at least temporarily. Hoping it won’t be requested or needed is not a good plan.
The internationals are in worse shape in Syria, where they haven’t managed to pass even a Security Council resolution denouncing Bashar al Assad’s horrendous assaults on his own population. The Turkish national security council is planning to meet Thursday to consider “radical” moves on Syria. Foreign Minister Davutoglu has pronounced what he terms the “final word,” which presumably means that action is coming soon. Speculation centers on a Turkish military incursion across the border into Syria, presumably to protect civilians in neighboring villages. In that event, all Bashar has to do is concentrate his attacks on the population in areas the Turks would find it hard to reach.
The more important move could come in the form of Turkish economic sanctions that signal clearly to businesspeople in Damascus and Aleppo that they need to convince Bashar al Assad to stop. But that isn’t easy for the Turks, who are enjoying their role as the burgeoning economic power of the region and will not want to give anyone reason to think twice about doing business with Turkish companies. It would be far easier for the Turks if any economic sanctions were multilateral and decided at the United Nations.
I am in Istanbul this morning–it really is a thrilling city of fabulous economic activity. Turkish geopolitical confidence is growing, but taking on Syria either militarily or economically when your foreign policy is focused on “zero problems” with neighbors is not easy. Still, I have to hope Ankara decides this week to save Europe and the United States from their own ineffectiveness.
PS: A demonstration in Aleppo, this evening:
I first used this title 15 years ago in a piece for the Secretary of State’s Morning Summary about Presidents Tudjman, Milosevic and Izetbegovic. It drew a personal word of interest and praise from President Clinton. That doesn’t happen often, so a lowly office director tends to remember when it does. And maybe resurrect the charmed title at an appropriate moment.
Today’s three blind mice are chiefs of state Bashar al Assad, Muammar Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Syria, Libya and Yemen, respectively. While it is easy now to imagine that things will get worse in these three countries before they get better, it is clear enough that they would be better now if their chiefs had stepped aside long ago to allow orderly transitions. Sunday the Syrian armed forces made a clear summer day in Hama sound like this:
Bashar al Assad therefore rates a word of particular opprobrium: he and his brother Maher are showing themselves heirs to the blood-shedding tradition of their father Hafez. This should not surprise, but people have come to think Bashar is somehow better than the rest of his homicidal family. It just isn’t so.
Things are arguably worse in Libya and Yemen. A kind of multi-faceted tribal, regional and sectarian chaos reigns in the latter, on top of a popular protest movement that remains vigorous and terrorist bands who harbor in the hinterlands. In Libya, the killing by we know not whom of General Abdel Fatah Younes, a rebel military leader who came over from the Gaddafi regime, has raised lots of questions about the Transitional National Council (TNC) that leads the rebellion, which apparently had to fight off Gaddafi forces inside Benghazi over the weekend.
These three Middle Eastern potentates are blind not just to the interests of their countries but also to their own. A few months ago it would have been possible to arrange a decent exit for these embattled chiefs of state. Now the International Criminal Court has indicted Gaddafi, Saleh is nursing wounds in Saudi Arabia and Bashar al Assad cannot hope to escape responsibility for several thousand deaths of peaceful demonstrators. Only Saleh can hope to live out a peaceful old age, and only if he gives up on his ambition to return to Yemen.
What we are lacking here is the farmer’s wife, who is supposed to cut off their tails with a carving knife. By this I mean some international party that can persuade chiefs of state who have lost the consent of the people they govern to step aside. In the midst of this Arab spring Ban Ki Moon was reelected as United Nations Secretary General, but he has not been empowered to negotiate what the international community clearly seeks: abdication of these chiefs of state. He has a clear mandate only with respect to Gaddafi, and that is for a ceasefire and withdrawal rather than abdication.
Several “mediators” have sought compromise solutions. The African Union and Turkey have tried with Libya, Turkey has tried with Syria, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia and its wealthy monarchy friends) has tried with Yemen. None of this has worked so far. What we are witnessing is a failure of diplomacy, which should make us think harder about how to strengthen international norms and institutions that can deliver results more effectively.
That is precisely what is not happening, though I happily credit U.S. ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford (who testifies this week in Congress) for his courageous display of support to the demonstrators. Instead, the U.S. Congress is considering budgets that would slice diplomacy to the bone and limit contributions to international organization. I can’t really say there are 535 blind mice, since some members of Congress understand better than I do what is needed. But the collective decision is likely to disarm the farmer’s wife, leaving her standing there without even a carving knife to discipline the unruly despots of the 21st century.