While I was enjoying a good discussion yesterday of mainly diplomatic Syria options over at Brookings (co-sponsored by the Middle East Institute), military experts at the Washington Institute were publishing an assessment of options for military intervention.
My bottom line: the “harder” military options, whether by the dissident-manned Free Syrian Army (FSA) or by external powers, are unlikely to be effective. Nonviolent options–multilateral diplomacy combined with continuing protests–have a much better chance for success, but they may take a long time. Where I come from, if the choice is between failing quickly and succeeding slowly, wisdom chooses slow success. But that also means sustaining the protesters for longer than they can last without help.
The Brookings/MEI event feature three of the very best on Syria: Murhaf Jouejati, who is now in the Syrian National Council (SNC), Ömer Taşpınar of Brookings and SAIS, and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute.
Murhaf Jouejati set a good pace: the Barbara Walters interview showed Bashar al Assad for what he is: a liar. There is no disconnection from reality. He is determined to stay in power and use any means to do so. The U.S. sanctions have had a psychological effect but the European Union sanctions are far more important, especially the ban on importing Syrian oil. The big blows were the Turkish sanctions and the Arab League decision, which is to be implemented beginning December 27. This deprived Bashar of his claim to be an Arab champion.
The impact is substantial. Oil revenue is down, tourism is disappearing, the dinar has lost value, heating oil is scarce. The revolutionaries are shifting from street protests to strikes and boycotts, which are less dangerous. The SNC is coordinating with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which says it is committed to defensive actions. There are differences between the SNC and the National Coordinating Committee, a group inside Syria that is opposed to international intervention and prepared to talk with the regime, while the SNC would like international intervention to protect civilians and hasten collapse (and wants talks only on transition once Bashar has agreed to step down). Without outside intervention, regime implosion could take a long time. The Arab League proposal for international monitors has potential, but we need to get them in as quickly as possible, something Bashar is unlikely to agree to.
Ömer Taşpınar thinks two factors drive Turkish behavior on Syria: the damage Bashar has done to its “zero problems with neighbors policy” and a growing sentiment of Sunni solidarity, fed by disgust with Bashar’s continuation of the crackdown during Ramadan. Turkey does not want to be seen as supporting Western initiatives on Syria or following a U.S. lead. Ankara wants to see multilateral, especially UN Security Council, backing for whatever is done. It will not likely take unilateral action. The U.S. needs to be more effective diplomatically with Russia and China. The SNC needs to prepare and publish its vision for post-Assad Syria.
Andrew Tabler sees the U.S. as having been slow to react correctly to events in Syria, but it has now come around and is reaching out to the opposition, which is both grandiose in its ambitions and depressed in its mood. It is at a crossroads and needs to decide whether to use violence. The de facto contact group (U.S., France, Germany, UK, and Turkey, which should be augmented with Arab countries) needs to consider humanitarian corridors or buffer zones. The protests should remain nonviolent to preserve political and moral advantage. Sanctions have to be targeted to “break off” key regime pillars. The most likely to fall are the Sunni businessmen, who are already hedging their bets.
The military options published by the Washington Institute range from the silly to the unpromising. Humanitarian corridors into Syria’s cities? Apart from the fact that they don’t appear to be needed, they would impossible to sustain if the regime decided it did not want them. Buffer zones or enclaves along the Turkish border? That requires suppression of a substantial Syrian air defense system and constant vigilance thereafter, in the air and on the ground. Without it, the buffer zones just become unprotected targets, like the Safe Areas during the Bosnian war. That’s where you are sure to find your enemies, so that is where you aim. No-fly zone? It’s a bad joke, since the regime is not using aircraft to repress demonstrations. It would just be the top of the slippery slope to broader intervention.
In the end, the Washington Institute resorts to that next to last refuge of scoundrels, covert action:
…even covert intervention would buoy the opposition’s morale, while signaling to Damascus that events are moving against it, that external powers are willing to run risks to aid the population, and that the opposition has important allies. Taken together, these developments could significantly alter the dynamic of the Syrian struggle.
I’m all for doing whatever we can to get the Syrian opposition the money, cell phones, fuel and other supplies they need to sustain nonviolent protest, but “covert action” has a serious record of compromising whoever accepts it and failing to produce good results.
My conclusion: the Arab League proposal for human rights monitors is the best idea out there. If Bashar rejects them, it is one more nail in his coffin. If he accepts them, they are likely to report on atrocities and help to end his regime. I just hope the Arab League has 500 of them ready and willing if he does accept. A UN Security Council resolution calling for their deployment would be a giant step in the right direction. That’s a tall order for our diplomats, but one worthy of their efforts.
American Ambassador Robert Ford is returning to Damascus, where violence continues. Security forces and pro-regime militias killed dozens yesterday while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was meeting with opposition Syrian National Council members in Geneva. It is not clear how many the defector-manned Free Syrian Army has killed, but the SNC is claiming its armed partners will only defend Syrians and not undertake offensive operations.
There is no sign of the Arab League observers Bashar al Assad claims to have agreed could be deployed. Syria is now saying that sanctions have to end before observers can be deployed. I guess Damascus forgot to mention that earlier.
What is to be done? More of the same I am afraid. There is no quick solution. Even if Bashar were to exit suddenly, there would still be a regime in place fighting for its life with the resources Iran provides. The effort now has to focus on tightening sanctions, especially those imposed by the European Union and the Arab League as well as Turkey. It is important also to continue to work on the Russians, who have so far blocked any UN Security Council resolution.
Burhan Ghalioun, who leads the SNC, goes over all these issues and more in his Wall Street Journal interview last week. Unfortunately, it attracted attention mainly for what he had to say about Syria being able to recover the Golan Heights and breaking its military alliance with Iran. Much more interesting were his commitment to nonviolence, to a “civil” state, to countering sectarianism, to Arab solidarity and to building a serious democracy with rule of law. The outlines of an SNC program are starting to emerge, including a desire for an orderly transition, maintenance of state institutions and elections within a year. But I found it hard to credit his dismissal of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has long played an important underground role in Syria and is likely to persist as an important political force in the post-Assad period.
The Americans seem to me still focused on hastening Bashar’s removal. That is certainly a worthy goal, but it may not happen. We also need to be worrying about sustaining the nonviolent opposition, which is under enormous pressure every day. Ambassador Ford’s return may give them a boost, but he is unlikely to be able to do much to help them or to communicate effectively with the regime, whose listening skills are minimal.
Getting the observers in would be one important step, but it is unclear to me whether they really exist. If Bashar did agree to them, could the Arab League deploy them within a reasonable time frame? Who are they? How many? How have they been trained? What rules of behavior will they follow? How will they report?
Bluff is not going to win this game. Enforcing sanctions, persuading the Russians to go along with a Security Council resolution, deploying Arab League observers, sustaining the protesters, keeping an exit door open for Bashar: none of it is easy, but together these things may begin slowly to turn the tide.
Here is Bashar al Assad with Barbara Walters: he asks for evidence of brutality, denies that he has given orders for a crackdown and suggests the UN is not credible. He likely also thinks the sun revolves around the earth:
Islamists have now won pluralities in recent Tunisia, Morocco and the first round of the Egyptian elections. There is every reason to believe they will continue to do well in Egypt and in Libya. How should the U.S. and Europe respond?
Calmly. It is not surprising that relatively well-organized Islamists, who for decades led often underground opposition to nominally secularist and nationalist autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (and to the monarchy in Morocco), are doing well in the first sort-of free and fair elections. Yes, relatively secularist youth led the protests earlier this year, but they are not reaping the electoral fruits. There has not been nearly enough time for them to organize, and in Egypt they have been more inclined to protest in Tahrir than to get out to the hustings. Secularism, stained by autocrats and often viewed as synonymous with atheism (not only in Muslim countries), faces a long uphill struggle. Separation of mosque and state is not even on the horizon.
In Tunisia and Morocco, the parties winning pluralities seem determined to avoid the worst excesses of Islamism, but there are going to be constant tussles over veiling, alcohol, status of women and other religious/social issues. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has also been toeing a relatively moderate line, but the far less moderate and Salafist Nour party is also doing well. In all three countries, at least some of the Islamists would like to imitate the success of the ruling Turkish Islamists, who have managed to gain a clear majority by moderating their once more militant views.
The Islamists who do well this year will have an enormous challenge ahead of them, as economic conditions are going to be difficult. This may force some degree of moderation, or at least reduce the saliency of social/religious issues and give secularists some time to get their act together.
The key battleground in my view will be rule of law. Rule of law is where secular regimes in Muslim countries have most obviously failed. It is also the area where many Muslims regard Islamists as offering a credible alternative.
Islamists think Sharia should be the basis of law in Muslim countries, as in fact it nominally was even under supposedly secular autocrats. The question is one of degree and interpretation. If Europe and the United States want the 2011 Arab spring to result in democratic regimes that respect human rights and see eye to eye with the West, they are going to need to engage seriously on rule of law issues. This would mean helping the judiciaries of these countries to rid themselves of corruption and enabling them to establish the kind of independence from executive authority and moderate interpretations of Sharia that might lead to legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Sincere secularists have advantages in this struggle for hearts and minds. The more than 50 per cent of the population that is female cannot expect equal rights under the more extreme interpretations of Sharia. It is hard to picture the substantial middle classes of Tunisia or Morocco accepting public stoning of adulterers. Egypt’s Christian minority will want a more moderate legal regime.
But to take advantage of these advantages, secularists and more moderate Islamists will need to regroup after these elections and get serious about protecting individual human rights and independence of the judiciary. Their friends in the West should provide support.
More than a little difficult to sum up today’s Middle East Institute “game changer” conference in a few words, but here’s a try:
1. Enthusiasm for Arab spring, with lots of uncertainty about both transition and how it will come out in the end. It is still the first five minutes. Economic problems loom.
2. Tunisia could be a hopeful bellwether: good electoral process, moderate Islamist victory, clear roadmap.
3. Libya shaky, with militias the big immediate problem but the constitutional framework provides a clear roadmap ahead, if they can stick with it.
4. But Egypt is the big prize. Things there are not going well: security shaky, military holding on, electoral process too complicated, liberals fragmented, Muslim Brotherhood strong, economy weak.
5. Revolution likely to succeed sooner or later in Syria, but possible high cost (civil war) and high payoff (depriving Iran of an important ally). Arab League moves do make a difference.
6. Also like to succeed in Bahrain and Yemen, but cost may also be high there.
7. Little hope to revive the Israel/Palestine peace process before the U.S. presidential elections, though Dan Kurtzer argued strongly for a bold U.S. initiative to define parameters.
8. Iran is gaining in Iraq and Afghanistan, but losing in Syria and the Arab world generally, as Turkey and smaller Arab monarchies gain but Saudis do not.
9. Israel, facing many uncertainties, hopes for preservation of the status quo but navigates when need be.
10. Lots of change, but overall outcome not yet clear.
These are obviously only my impressionistic highlights. I’ll be glad if others chime in.
Today’s suspension of Syria from the Arab League will be seen by some as irrelevant, even risible. Who would even want to be a member of an organization as feckless as the one that 10 days ago reached an agreement with President Bashar al Assad to end the violence, only to see him turn around and gun down hundreds of protesters? Nor does the Arab League have a great record of achievement elsewhere, and many of its members would arguably respond to protesters in much the same way as Bashar has.
But that misses the point. The key to ending Bashar al Assad’s reign of terror in Syria is to attack his legitimacy. Anything that contributes, even marginally, to that end has to be counted as positive. International legitimacy is important to autocrats. Bashar certainly doesn’t care much about the Arab League–if he did he would not have so blatantly violated the agreement he reached with it–but if the League did not act at this point it would certainly redound to his benefit.
Assistant Secretary of State Feltman testified this week with admirable clarity about U.S. goals and strategy: we want to see protesters protected, Bashar out, and a transition to democracy begun. But he was also appropriately modest about our capacity to get what we want. Our primary leverage is through the European oil embargo, which seems to be holding, and other, mainly financial, sanctions, which are beginning to bite. There is not, at the level of goals, much of a gap between the Administration and outside experts like Andrew Tabler, who also testified.
But Andrew did have some specific policy suggestions worthy of consideration: formation of a Syria contact group, development of a strategy to peel away the regime’s supporters, helping the opposition unify and begin planning for transition, pushing for human rights monitors, preparing for military action and pressing for a Security Council resolution.
The Administration is certainly pursuing several of these already. Feltman made it clear that international monitors is among them, as is helping the opposition. Surely they already are thinking in terms of a strategy to peel away the regime’s supporters and are beginning to press again for Security Council action.
The one that gives me pause, and likely does likewise Feltman, is preparing for military action. It would certainly be justified against a regime that is taking military action against its own citizens, but any visible preparation for international military action will encourage violent resistance inside Syria. That is a bad idea. As Feltman makes amply clear, Bashar al Assad is intentionally encouraging violent resistance, as it solidifies the security forces as well as his political support and gives him every reason to crack down forcefully.
Just as important: there is not likely to be any military protection for the protesters, apart from welcoming those who flee along the border with Turkey. Russia will block any authorization in the Security Council, the Europeans are exhausted after Libya and preoccupied with the euro crisis, and the Arab League is still far from asking for the use of force. The Americans stand to gain a great deal from peaceful regime change in Syria, but violent change will risk ethnic and sectarian warfare with wide and potentially devastating regional consequences.
Bashar is finished, sooner or later. We need to worry about making sure that what comes after is a democratic regime prepared to allow all Syrians a say in how they are governed. That will be far easier to accomplish if the protests can be kept peaceful, no matter how violent the regime gets. For those who doubt this proposition, I can only recommend Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works.
Politics and Policy in the New Middle East: that’s what they are calling the Middle East Institute 2011 Annual Conference at the Grand Hyatt, 1000 H Street:
Wednesday, Nov. 16th
6:00pm: Kickoff Banquet: Keynote by Bill Burns, DepSecState; awardees Lakhdar Brahimi and Esraa Abdel Fattah
Thursday, Nov. 17th
8:45 – 9:00am: Opening Remarks: Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin, President MEI
9:00-10:30am: After the Arab Spring: Assessing US Policy In the Middle East
10:45am-12:15pm: The Road Ahead for Emerging Arab Democracies
12:30-2:10pm: Keynote Luncheon: Samih al-Abed and Yossi Beilin
2:15-3:45pm: Shifting Regional Power Dynamics in an Era of Change
4:00-5:30pm: Economic and Development Strategies for a Middle East in Transition