Tag: Syria

The Endgame in Syria

Eventually, Syrian president Bashar-al Assad will fall from power. When that will happen has been the subject of much speculation. Appearing on NPR’s On Point, CBS News foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward, who won a 2012 Peabody Award for her reporting on the Syrian uprising, had this to say about ”the endgame and the final chapter and the final countdown” and all the other clichés we have been hearing:

[T]he reality on the ground is that the regime still has some fight left in it. They are still militarily far superior to rebel forces. Rebel forces are still desperately lacking the heavy weaponry they would need to seriously take on the regime militarily. They are still not a cohesive fighting force with a clear command structure. There is still almost no coordination among the various rebel groups. So I think it’s a little early to talk about the final countdown. But certainly what we’ve seen transpiring in Damascus over the past few days … I think it is a turning point. We have opened a new chapter even if it’s not the final chapter in this.

Whither the Assad Regime?

The bombing of Syria’s national security headquarters, which killed key figures in the government, is evidence of expanding instability, but not of a regime on the verge of collapse. The attack and others like it have not significantly altered the Syrian uprising’s most enduring challenge: the inability of its fragmented opposition to congeal. This challenge, coupled with the rebellion’s lack of an inclusive vision for Syria’s minorities, and the troubling developments today, should give proponents of intervention pause.

America, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf Arab states have all called on Syria’s fractured opposition to unify. A commitment to inclusion today could break down tomorrow, and such divisions could set the stage for an even bloodier ethno-sectarian civil war in a post-Assad Syria. Discord persists despite rebel attacks on regime officials and security forces. In fact, conflicting reports about the most recent bombing in Damascus—whether it was carried out by the Free Syrian Army, which claimed responsibility, or a cabinet member’s personal bodyguard—points to the difficulty of discerning the exact nature of the opposition.

Islamists, for instance, seem intent on hijacking the struggle for a democratic Syria. In May, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly reported that despite U.S. hopes that minorities would unite under the Sunni-led Syrian National Congress, Syria’s Christians, Kurds, Druze, and Alawite sect, “All have resisted what they say is the group’s domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

That same month, Pentagon spokesperson Navy Captain John Kirby told reporters that defense officials believe “al-Qaida has some presence inside Syria and interest in fomenting violence in Syria.” He added, “We do not believe they share the goals of the Syrian opposition or that they are even embraced by the opposition … The sense that we get is that it is primarily members of [al-Qaida in Iraq] that are migrating into Syria.”

Similarly, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned earlier this year that al Qaeda-aligned forces coming from neighboring Iraq—a country that the United States occupied for nearly a decade—had carried out explosions in Damascus:

The two bombings in Damascus in December … and then the two additional bombings in Aleppo, both of which were targeted against security and intelligence buildings … had all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack.  So we believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.

Rather than exercise restraint, the rise of Syria’s Islamists has encouraged Washington to intervene. Last month, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials had ordered a small number of C.I.A. officers to help funnel “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons,” across the Turkish border through intermediaries in Syria who include the Muslim Brotherhood, all paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The justification was to keep weapons out of the hands of al Qaeda-allied groups, which is not reassuring. The most infamous instance of planners in Washington assisting the arming of rebels was in the 1980s in Afghanistan—a country that years later turned into an al Qaeda sanctuary.

The Syrian opposition’s failure to unite, combined with the ascendance of Islamists and al Qaeda-linked jihadists, complicates, among other things, the Western response to the Assad regime’s continued massacre of its people. For now, these divisions will prove more damaging to the Syrian uprising than the uprising’s attacks on the regime’s iron-fist.

NATO and Turkey: Moribund Alliances, Military Snares, and Unnecessary Wars

NATO fulfilled its Cold War role by deterring rather than sparking conflict. Yet if Turkey and Syria come to blows, the transatlantic alliance could turn into a transmission belt of war for America.

Syria’s developing civil war has spilled over into Turkey. Moreover, Ankara has begun to meddle in the conflict next door. Despite Turkey’s denials, the Erdogan government appears to be channeling arms shipments to rebels and sheltering Syrian opposition activists.

Thus, tension between the two governments was rising even before the Syrian military destroyed a Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance plane. Damascus claimed the aircraft was in Syrian airspace; Ankara said the jet had strayed over Syrian territory but was over international waters when downed. The plane may have been on a surveillance mission:  the Erdogan government has been pressing for NATO military action against Syria.

After the shoot-down, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “any military approach to the Turkish border from the Syrian side will be perceived as a threat and will be dealt with accordingly.” Ankara also sought backing from NATO’s members: “We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms,” explained Alliance chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Rasmussen said that Article 5, regarding use of military force in defense, had not been discussed. And he stated “It is my clear expectation that the situation won’t continue to escalate.” Wars have a way of happening unexpectedly, however. If Turkey attacks Syrian military units in their own territory, sparking retaliation by Damascus followed by a call from Ankara to NATO for support, the United States could find itself, however reluctantly, at war.

Alliances make sense when directed against an overwhelming outside threat. The Soviet Union constituted one. Syria does not.  NATO has turned into an association which drags members into everyone else’s wars, actually reducing collective security.

The United States pulls Europe into Afghanistan, a mission widely opposed by the European people. Europe pulls America into Libya, a mission widely opposed by the American people. Turkey could pull both America and Europe into Syria, a mission generally opposed by both the American and European people.

The security argument for Washington’s defense of Europe disappeared years ago. The worsening confrontation between Turkey and Syria offers a sharp reminder that NATO is not only unnecessary but dangerous. The U.S. should drop this outmoded security commitment before it draws America into yet another war in the Middle East.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

NATO: An Alliance Past Its Prime

On May 20, the 2012 NATO Chicago summit will bring together the heads of state from the alliance. The agenda reads like a rundown of major world events in the past two years: the Arab Spring, the Libyan civil war, the global financial crisis, and the war in Afghanistan. It seems no problem is too big for NATO.

Of these topics, the most pressing and headline-grabbing will be the plan NATO and the United States establish to gradually turn responsibility for security in Afghanistan over to the Afghan national forces. But also of note are the topics—“lessons learned from Libya,” and the “Smart Defense Initiative,”—that display the reliance of Europe on the United States for advanced military capabilities. Libya in particular showcased Europe’s inability to act without the U.S.

The lessons from Libya are two-fold, and it is important to keep them in mind as policymakers and pundits in Washington call for the next U.S. intervention, possibly in Syria or Iran. First, the results so far have been disappointing for America’s latest stab at coercive democratization.

Libya also was a disappointment as a supposed new model for U.S. intervention. In fact, that conflict reinforces the fact that NATO really stands for North America and The Others. Without the U.S., the Europeans would be essentially helpless.

A new alliance study underscores Europe’s relative ineffectiveness. Reports the New York Times:

Despite widespread praise in Western capitals for NATO’s leadership of the air campaign in Libya, a confidential NATO assessment paints a sobering portrait of the alliance’s ability to carry out such campaigns without significant support from the United States.

The report concluded that the allies struggled to share crucial target information, lacked specialized planners and analysts, and overly relied on the United States for reconnaissance and refueling aircraft.

This should surprise no one. After all, during the war against Serbia—another nation which had not threatened America or any American ally—Europe was estimated to have a combat effectiveness less than 15 percent that of the U.S. The Europeans had large conscript armies, but outside of Britain and France had very little ability to project power. Later European participation in Afghanistan has been marred by the dozens of national “caveats” limiting participation in combat.

Yet alliance expansion is also on the agenda for the May NATO summit in Chicago. The list of alliance-wannabes includes such powerhouses as Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. Former Soviet republics notable mostly for their tangled and/or troubled relations with Russia—Georgia and Ukraine—are also on the list. All of these nations would be security liabilities, not assets, for America.

As the NATO study demonstrates, should the alliance’s Article 5 commitment get invoked, America would do most of the fighting. It would be one thing to take that risk where vital interests were at stake. But they are not in the Balkans, let alone in the Caucasus, which was part of Imperial Russia even before the Soviet Union.

Alliances should reflect the security environment. The Cold War is over. The Europeans have developed, the Soviet Union is kaput, and the potential European conflicts of the future—distant and unlikely—are linked to no hegemonic threat against America.

Instead of talking about NATO expansion, the U.S. should set down the burden of defending Europe. Let the Europeans take over NATO or create their own European defense organization, as they have discussed for years. The latest reminder of Europe’s relative military ineffectiveness reinforces the case for ending the continent’s cheap ride. It is time to turn North America and The Others into simply The Others.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Intervention in Libya and Syria Isn’t Humanitarian or Liberal

Proponents of foreign military intervention in Libya argued that giving air support to rebels there would spread liberalism and save Libyan lives. But the success of that revolution has thus far delivered political chaos destructive to both ends. That result is worth noting as backers of the Libya intervention offer it as a model for aiding Syrian rebels in the name of similar goals.

Advocates of both interventions underestimate coercion’s contribution to political order. Autocratic rule in these countries is partially a consequence of state weakness—the absence of strong liberal norms, government institutions, and nationalism. By helping to remove the levers of coercion in places like Libya and Syria, we risk producing anarchy—continual civil war or long-lived violent disorder. Either outcome would likely worsen suffering through widespread murder, a collapse of sanitation and health services, and stunted economic growth conducive to well-being. And the most promising paths to new of forms of unity and order in these states are illiberal: religious rule, war, or new autocrats. The humanitarian and liberal cases for these interventions are unconvincing.

Aside from Qaddafi’s fall, U.S. leaders gave three primary rationales for military intervention Libya (I repeatedly criticized them last spring). One was to show other dictators that the international community would not tolerate the violent suppression of dissenters. That reverse domino theory has obviously failed. If Qaddafi’s fate taught neighboring leaders like Bashar al-Assad anything, it is to brutally nip opposition movements in the bud before they coalesce, attract foreign arms and air support, and kill you, or, if you’re lucky, ship you off to the Hague.

The second rationale was the establishment of liberal democracy. But Libya, like Syria, lacks the traditional building blocks of liberal democracy. And history suggests that foreign military intervention impedes democratization. Whether or not it manages to hold elections, Libya seems unlikely to become a truly liberal state any time soon. As with Syria, any path to that outcome is likely to be long and bloody.

Meanwhile, Libya’s revolution has destabilized Mali. Qaddafi’s fall pushed hundreds of Tuareg tribesmen that fought on his side back to their native Mali, where they promptly reignited an old insurgency. Malian military officers, citing their government’s insufficient vigor against the rebels, mounted a coup, overthrowing democracy that had lasted over twenty years. Thus far, the military intervention in Libya has reduced the number of democracies by one.

The most widely cited rationale for helping Libya’s rebels was to save civilians from the regime. Along with many commentators, President Obama and his aides insisted that Qaddafi promised to slaughter civilians in towns that his forces were poised to retake last March. Thus, intervention saved hundreds of thousands of lives. A minor problem with this claim is that Qaddafi’s speeches actually threatened rebel fighters, not civilians, and he explicitly exempted those rebels that put down arms. More importantly, if Qaddafi intended to massacre civilians, his forces had ample opportunity to do it. They did commit war crimes, using force indiscriminately and executing and torturing prisoners. But the sort of wholesale slaughter that the Obama administration warned of did not occur—maybe because the regime’s forces lacked the organization needed for systematic slaughter.

The limited nature of the regime’s brutality does not itself invalidate humanitarian concerns. It might be worthwhile to stop even a historically mild suppression of rebellion if the cost of doing so is low enough. The trouble with the humanitarian argument for intervention in Libya is instead that the intervention and the chaos it produced may ultimately cause more suffering than the atrocities it prevented. Libya’s rebel leaders have thus far failed to resurrect central authority. Hundreds of militias police cities and occasionally battle. There are many credible reports that militias have unlawfully detained thousands of regime supporters, executed others, driven mistrusted communities from their homes, and engaged in widespread torture.

The looting of Libya’s weapons stockpiles is also likely to contribute to Libya’s misery, in part by arming the militias that obstruct central authority. The weapons depots reportedly included thousands of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), some of which may still work. It is worth noting that the widely-reported claim that Libya lost 20,000 MANPADS appears exaggerated. That figure comes from Senate testimony last spring by the head of Africa Command, who did not substantiate it (my two requests to Africa’s Command PR people for information on this claim were ignored). A State Department official recently gave the same figure before essentially admitting that we have no idea what the right figure is.

No one can say with certainty whether Libya’s anarchy will produce more suffering than a Qaddafi victory would have. But that argument is plausible. Autocracies tend to serve human well-being better than chaos. That does not make it inherently immoral to help overthrow despots. It simply suggests that such interventions, whether or not they are moral or wise, do not deserve the adjective “humanitarian.”

The same goes for Syria. One need not support its brutal rulers to agree that their fall, like Gaddafi’s, is likely to produce extended illiberal chaos or another set of autocrats. I don’t know what the right U.S. policy is toward the crisis in Syria. But I doubt any policy exists that can avoid sacrificing one of our hopes for another.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Don’t Arm Syria’s Rebels

With the death toll in Syria now climbing above 5,000, and graphic videos and images of the bloodbath flooding the internet, some in Washington have called for arming the Syrian resistance. That option, compared to other alternatives like a NATO-led no-fly zone, seems antiseptic. But America’s arming of rebels will amount to contributing to a worsening situation without a means of reaching a peaceful end state. Restraint, however unpalatable, is the most prudent option in an increasingly intractable situation.

First, there is no clear group in the resistance for Washington to provide arms to, even if that was the policy option chosen. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has argued most forcefully for arming the rebels, said, “It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter.” But Sen. McCain stopped short of calling for the direct supply of weapons by the United States, and didn’t mention to whom among the resistance he’d like to lend a helping hand.

No single group or leader speaks on behalf of Syria’s resistance, especially in a country where political loyalty tends to hew to one’s ethnicity, religion, sect, or clan. The Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC), considered weak by some Syrian activists, is still willing to engage the regime in a power-sharing unity government.

The exile-based Syrian National Council (SNC) rejects all contact with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. SNC seeks recognition from the West, but is viewed by some as a vehicle for monopolizing the uprising. The Free Syrian Army, a disorganized mash-up of disparate rebel groups and government soldiers who have switched sides, has declared its allegiance to the SNC.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has said it’s open to foreign intervention, at first emphasizing Muslim Turkey. Meanwhile, a large portion of Syrian Kurds see Turkey as a primary threat. These rifts persist amid reports of Sunni jihadists entering Syria from Iraq, and fears that al Qaeda may hijack what for many is a struggle for a democratic Syria.

Furthermore, as George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch and others have argued, “boosting rebel fighting capacity” is likely to crystallize Syria’s internal polarization, and do little to weaken the Assad regime politically.

Flooding Syria with weapons, in a conflict the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has described as on the brink of civil war, might be used to justify a heavier government crackdown. U.S. assistance to rebels would vindicate Assad’s narrative that the revolt is a conspiracy of outside forces, including the U.S., Israel, and the Gulf states. It could also stir Sunni elites in Damascus and the relatively quiescent Aleppo to rally around Assad, strengthening his support, rather than weakening it.

Lastly, the civil war won’t end after arming one side. The most infamous instance of backlash was from the U.S. arming rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a country that later turned into an al Qaeda sanctuary.

Today in Syria, the foreign frenzy of weapons pouring in has already resulted in a hot mess. Iranian and Russian arms, along with political support from Lebanon and Iraq, are going to the regime in Damascus and the large portion of minority Shia Alawites who support it. Arms and support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back the majority Sunnis and other anti-Shia Islamist factions. Whatever this regional and international sectarian proxy war morphs into Washington would do best to stay out of it.

Syria’s deepening slide into civil war looks likely, which can be prevented only by either marshaling international opposition to the Assad regime, something Washington has already attempted to do, or encouraging more defections from within the regime, with the promise of resettlement and amnesty. The current diplomatic policy of waiting for the resistance to congeal and pledge to guard minority rights is prudent and should be pursued.

Sending weapons to rebels might satisfy the outside world’s moral urge to do something immediately, but it also might add to the mayhem, increase the loss of life, and push Syria further away from a stable future. Restraint is the more difficult choice, but the one that serves both the American and the Syrian people better in the long run.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Libya Begets Syria?

A little over a year ago, as members of the Obama administration were pondering military intervention in Libya, skeptics (including The Skeptics) pressed them to explain how that situation differed from other comparable cases elsewhere in the world. If Libya, why not Yemen? Why not Bahrain? Why not Syria? We may soon learn the answer to that last question. And their too-permissive—or merely haphazard—approach a year ago might pave the way for an intervention in Syria that would be ill-advised, if not disastrous.

At the time of the Libya debate (to the extent that there was one), the president and his foreign-policy advisers dismissed concerns that the intervention in Libya would set a precedent. “It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs,” President Obama said in a televised speech to the nation on March 28, 2011. But, he continued:

that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country—Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale… To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and, more profoundly, our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.

At other times, the administration alluded to a loose set of guidelines to explain why it might choose to use force, guidelines which the Libya case met but other cases supposedly did not. These included the likelihood that a large-scale loss of life was imminent; the belief that prompt military action would prevent this violence; and the support of the international community, ideally a formal sanction in the UNSC (absent that, the approval of a regional body, such as the Arab League, might suffice).

Notably absent was sufficient consideration of whether our vital strategic interests were at stake. They were not in Libya, and they are not in Syria.

We should strive to avoid foreign intervention in all but very rare cases. Because getting in is always much easier than getting out, the burden of proof must always be on those making the case for war, not those advising against.

Beyond that, we must know what mission the U.S. military has been tasked with performing. We must have a reasonable estimate of the likelihood that it will achieve its mission. And we must have some sense of the likely costs in blood and treasure. Finally, we are a nation of laws, not of men—and decidedly not of one man. The president has very little authority to send troops into harm’s way, and he has none when U.S. security is not at stake (a criteria that Barack Obama endorsed as a senator but abandoned when he assumed a higher office). If the Obama administration is considering military action to remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, it should obtain formal congressional authorization for such action. And it should do that before going to the United Nations.

No other country is afforded such choices. No other country is able to project power over great distances and on very short notice. No other country has a track record of frequent foreign intervention, even when such operations have no direct connection to advancing our own security. This pattern of behavior constitutes our unique power problem. It is precisely because the United States has used force on numerous occasions over the past two decades that we need a particularly stringent set of criteria governing our future interventions. There is an almost endless parade of aggrieved parties calling on Uncle Sam to save them from harm. And when Washington refuses, or merely drags its heels, they will say: You fought to save Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, why do you then refuse to aid Muslims in Northern Africa or the Levant? The United States must have a ready answer.

But the Obama administration, cheered on or goaded by liberal and neoconservative hawks, does not have one. Yet. And its halting signals are likely to embolden those calling for yet another war.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.