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Syrian residents, fleeing violence elsewhere in Aleppo, arrive in the city’s Fardos neighborhood Tuesday. STRINGER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
As the last rebel neighborhoods in Aleppo fell this week, Samantha Power, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, excoriated Russia, Syria, and Iran for authoring what will prove to be the signal atrocity of our time.
“Are you truly incapable of shame?” Power asked. “Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?”
Hundreds of thousands chose to stay in what they proudly called “Free Aleppo,” eschewing safe routes when they still existed and vowing to preserve their alternative to Syrian President Bashar Assad even if it meant death.
This week, that horrific choice materialized. Assad’s regime destroyed rebel Aleppo step by step, using Russian airpower; legions of militiamen from Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon; and the barrel bomb, another of the war’s sad innovations. Syrian rebels in Aleppo had warned for a year and a half that a siege was inevitable unless their backers, including the United States, provided them at least with air support and a steady supply of bullets and cash.
Western officials decried the unfolding tragedy in Aleppo, but their actions guaranteed this week’s genocidal denouement. The United States withheld basic support to vetted rebels. Turkey diverted its proxies to deal with the Kurdish problem on the border. And the West continued to negotiate after Russia engaged in blatant subterfuge and spectacular war crimes, emboldening the scorched earth campaign in Aleppo.
Ambassador Power is right to ask about shame. Ultimately, a great share of it will belong to her government and the other fair-weather “friends of Syria” who supported the country’s revolution only half-heartedly — enough to prolong it while also sealing its failure.
For a quarter-century, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international order trended toward more accountability and cooperation. Sure, international law is most often honored in the breach, and institutions like the International Criminal Court have no enforcement arm. But for a time, the international community was a meaningful forum with a conscience, and it created new doctrines like the “responsibility to protect,” which held that any state that wantonly murders its citizens forsakes its sovereignty. New norms took root: War crimes still occurred but invited wider and wider condemnation, military interventions required legal justification, and humanitarian concerns achieved the status of core national interests.
Altruism and self-interest were crucially intertwined in doctrines that aimed to make the world a less cruel but also a more stable place. We opposed torture and war crimes elsewhere because they’re dead wrong, but also because we don’t want out own citizens subjected to them.
Today, an opposite calculus is in effect. We don’t stand against the leveling of Aleppo because we reserve the right not to be judged for similar crimes. It will be difficult for America to invoke human rights as a cornerstone of foreign policy.
On a human level, Aleppo’s fall is nearly unbearable. Citizens, volunteer doctors, children, and others are hunted from neighborhood to neighborhood in the city’s shrinking Assad-free patch. Shells and bombs fall indiscriminately. Those who flee risk massacre by pro-government militias. If they make it to safety, they face torture or even death in Assad’s gulag. We can hear their pride and desperation in videos, tweets, and phone calls, often broadcast live as the battle for Aleppo climaxes.
Many of us knew the end was coming, but when it finally did this week, it was a sucker punch to the gut. Even if we expected it, we hoped Aleppo would not finish this way.
While this personalized violence is horrifying, it is hardly unique to Aleppo. Yet this apex of expedient, Machiavellian criminality caps off a long period when norms have eroded and international law has been undermined by its most important sponsors. Everyone has a stake in the erasure of Aleppo — not just the trigger-pulling governments in Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow.
Aleppo has thrived for millennia and one day will recover as a city. The prognosis is not as good for the ideas we have cherished since World War II and which we hoped would prevent any repeats.
Syria’s war will continue for some time — probably years. But barring a major and unexpected global shift, its outcome is no longer in doubt. Assad’s government will stay in power, slowly re-extending its reach over the entire territory of Syria and cobbling together some new version of the terror-and-torture apparatus through which it coerced the compliance of its population until 2011.
We watched the block-by-block incineration of a free city. Its rubble will build the foundation of our century’s pessimistic new world order.
Posted November 29th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing
The Arab world continues its intense, long reckoning with new political forces even as authoritarian systems reassert control and some states devolve into violent conflict. The Middle East and North Africa are in the middle of an era of epochal contestation and conflict. Tectonic processes burst to the surface with the popular uprisings of 2010–2011, and continue today, albeit often in less visible forms. The region’s political energies run the gamut from radical and revolutionary to reactionary and repressive, and are engaged in serious efforts to rearrange the map of hard power and governance. At stake is control, legitimacy, and competition between established and emerging ideologies.
“Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings ,” a multi-year TCF effort supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, studies and charts some of the considerable ongoing political energy that continues to shape the Arab world. Political thought and organization persist even in quiescent or violent times. The regional restoration of authoritarianism has not resolved the pivotal struggle underway, although for the time being it has shifted momentum in favor of the reactionary constituency.
The reports in this series seek to identify the ideas and mechanics at play in a region where the very essence of governance, state control, and legitimacy, are being contested—by established forces as well as new constituencies empowered since the peak of the uprisings. No longer is Arab politics a slow-moving competition dominated by dictators, monarchs, and organized Islamist parties. Political space is being contested by a host of actors, including empowered bureaucracies and institutional players, wealthy individuals, militants, populist political movements, civil society organizations, journalists, artists, protesters, and others. Generations of repression failed to erase political life, which has sprouted in marginal and at times unexpected spaces. And from some of these other quarters, new thinkers and activists have proceeded to challenge the power of the state, lay their own claims to hard power, and articulate different visions of political life and governance. These energies and movements are by no means always benign or idealistic. Their ideology and goals vary, and they include many actors whose primary focus is the construction of a more resilient authoritarian order. Quite clearly, political energy and aspiration have survived the political uprisings and their short-term defeat; it is less clear in what direction that energy will push the Arab states and whether the reversal of the popular revolts will become permanent.
Nearly six years have passed since much of the Arab world erupted in revolt against an epoch of corrupt authoritarian misrule. Today, the region’s story is largely one of authoritarianism restored or fiercely defending itself in civil wars that are reducing some states to ruin. The optimism of 2011 can feel like a historical artifact, an idealistic, perhaps naïve aspiration built on hope without any firm analytical foundations.
However, the underlying causes of the uprisings for the most part remain unresolved. And political life throughout the region has irreducibly changed, even in places like Syria or Egypt that have suffered pronounced backlash and repression since the peak revolutionary moments of 2011. These changes are not always for the better, and in some cases have quite clearly been for the worse. Yet there are considerable forces at play in the Middle East and North Africa region today, engaged directly in the political sphere as never before. Existing communities and institutions, such as the independent media, have engaged in political discourse and idea creation with renewed vigor. Plutocrats and wealthy individuals, always a key adjunct to ruling regimes, have expanded their political agency. As resurgent authoritarians increase pressure on civil society, political efforts have continued in the human rights and reform communities. In some cases, authoritarian pressure has spawned new, sometimes radical political challenges from political organizers determined to throw off old ideological and sectarian labels. Spaces with traditionally tangential relationships to politics, like fine arts, have become more intensely political as official pressure has silenced politics in traditional venues such as labor unions and television talk shows. Weakened states at war, a sadly prominent feature of the current period of Arab crisis, have also opened new ungoverned spaces. In them, experiments at self-rule and new politics have flared; some are malignant, like the exertions of the Islamic State group, some carry on the inclusive reform rhetoric of the early uprisings, and some fall in between.
This extensive energy—efforts at creation, and the backlash against them; the erosion of state institutions and local initiatives to replace them; fragmented challenges to fragmenting ideologies of legitimacy—characterize a region still in dramatic flux. There is no evidence-based reason to believe that progress is inevitable in the Arab world, any more than there is evidence that it is doomed to an eternity of sclerotic despotism. It is clear, however, that a wide array of experiments are underway that contain a vast quantity of political energy and aspirations.
TCF conceived this project with two primary aims. First, to document with clarity and precision the forces at play in the region, with special attention to under-studied regional interactions, ideological shifts, and political spaces not traditionally associated with the pursuit of hard power or political change. Second, to showcase an approach steeped in granular detail and historical context, so as to record some of the region’s contemporary political history before it fades from living memory. This approach, we hope, will enrich the understanding of policy makers, analysts, and scholars who are rooted outside the region, bring them in closer contact with those from and based in the Arab world, and foster a spirit of communal inquiry and cooperation.
During the last wave of popular uprisings, many close observers of Arab political life, including some of its central participants, were shocked by the widespread popular anger that coalesced in 2010–2011, and by the unexpected potential of people power to bring recalcitrant governments to heel. In fact, much of the thinking and organizing that bubbled into public view during the revolts had long been coalescing, at least in plain enough sight for a few activists and researchers who were interested and receptive.
Many factors contributed to the failure to fully appreciate Arab political dynamics prior to 2010, especially the growing energy and courage of the constituencies willing to oppose government policies. It is easy in hindsight to pinpoint crises or movements that later proved important. One lesson of the uprisings is that it pays for researchers and policy analysts to invest attention in a wide array of political and social actors. Traditional power centers and institutions remained important throughout the peak period of popular revolt, but were joined by a host of suddenly important new entrants to the political arena. Effective research and analysis required quickly adapting to an expanded range of actors. Looking ahead to the coming period of political ferment and contestation in the Arab world, observers, analysts, and policymakers should position themselves to best understand the forces at play and the drivers of instability, transition, and restoration.
Prior to 2010, many observers of Arab politics tracked popular movements and smaller activist efforts, although few expected them to play an important or influential role. Analysts looking for drivers of political instability often discounted activity in marginal or secondary spaces such as the arts, among students and the wealthy, and in civil society. Soft politics and culture were often considered separate and unrelated to the pursuit of hard power, which supposedly only took place in political parties, labor unions, and other spaces traditionally considered the battleground for power. It is not possible to predict which social phenomena will play future roles as drivers of instability or change. These studies should encourage a broad and agnostic analysis of a wide range of political spaces. These contemporary histories and ethnographic reports improve the analytical tools at our disposal and contribute important qualitative data. This is not to suggest that a deeper and more nuanced understanding of political, social, and cultural dynamics will allow for more accurate predictions of coming instability. Instead, as a result of this type of research, analysts might be in a better position to understand the next unexpected political events that occur in the Arab world.
The popular uprisings that began in December 2010 in Tunisia sparked a wave of engagement across the Middle East and North Africa, the reverberations of which continue to this day. Throughout 2011, the region was enthralled by bold aspirations for a new dawn of accountable governance, transparency, and rights. It was considered inevitable that an old generation of dictators would be swept away, and it was widely believed that massive change, driven by inchoate people power, would manage to implement revolutionary change without violence or civil strife.
Tunisia alone seems to have charted a relatively positive course. Elsewhere, the best scenarios are where the status quo survived without widespread violence, as in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Morocco. Elsewhere, uprisings were quashed, as in Bahrain; dictatorships returned, as in Egypt; or war decimated the state, as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.
Human rights monitoring, advocacy, direct action, and documentary journalism all have critical roles to play in holding state power accountable. But none function by design as a pathway to power, or even to reform or change. They are adjuncts, not levers—and certainly not direct sources of hard power. One of the distortions of authoritarianism is that it neuters representative and mobilizing hard-power institutions—labor unions, political parties, and so on—that normally act to check and balance the government. As a result, ill-equipped soft spaces often take up the role of balancing and challenging the state. In authoritarian states, journalists, human rights monitors, and other entities conceived as referees or watchdogs, end up substituting for the opposition, since the state has eliminated all formal rivals. For decades, this set-up neutralized challenges to the state. But the endemic, generational failures of states to deliver on promises of services, security, and citizenship has exposed them to challenges from multiple directions.
We at TCF hope that these studies encourage detail-rich studies that are overtly engaged in policy analysis and addressing the needs of policy makers. Better information about political forces and actors will help shape more effective policy analysis and decision-making. The method and cases chosen are as important as the policy goal. If the community of analysts, academics, policy makers, journalists and others concerned with the political condition of the Arab states is to better understand it, there needs to be an accurate map of the political landscape and the forces at play. Traditional power centers remain pivotal and are often the only elements of the political equation subjected to thorough study and analysis. But as the last few decades have showed, Arab political efforts are underway beyond known spaces such as the military, ruling party, official opposition and labor unions.
This project emphasizes the basic tools of qualitative research, with detailed descriptions, interviews, and contemporary histories that enable comparative analysis. A firmly grounded understanding of what has happened and what is happening today makes the best starting point for any policy analysis about what is to be done and what might happen next. The approach employed in this case can and should be fruitfully extended to other cases, including but not limited to economic actors, burgeoning institutions like the civil defense corps in rebel Syria (known as the White Helmets), initiatives to document history and culture across the region, sports fan clubs, informal groupings of rich individuals, militias, and prisons as incubators of political ideation. This project puts forward analyses based on illustrations that should be useful even to readers unpersuaded by the arguments, and the case studies of enduring use to those who study and observe the Arab region.
TCF will release research reports produced by the Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings project on our website. The collected project, Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings: Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism (edited by Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna), is expected to be published in book form in June 2017 by TCF Press.
Political experimentation and invention survive in unlikely places half a decade after the Arab region erupted in revolt. Attempts to build institutions and ideologies have continued during a period of resurgent authoritarianism and at times amidst violent conflict and state collapse. In this volume, established researchers, new scholars, and active participants in the region’s politics explore some of the spaces where change is still emerging, as well as the dynamic forces arrayed against it.
With rich ethnographic detail, these studies pay special attention to efforts in culture, media, provincial and municipal governance, civil society organizations, and even in social movements whose revolutionary moment might seem to have passed. They explore regional dynamics and the local intellectual history of ideas central to the uprisings, such as secularism, liberalism, and human rights, and the reaction against them. They reveal an Arab region experiencing unprecedented cross-border learning and an unresolved struggle between resilient authoritarian structures and an array of alternative nodes of political power.
Significant political phenomena, whether progressive or reactionary, can be easy to miss in their early stages. These instructive studies can inform policy making that is aware of the varied attempts at social and political change in the Arab world and the forces competing to affect that change, many of which remain overlooked or under examined.
Contributors include Samer Abboud, Khaled Mansour, Nathan J. Brown, Benjamin J. Helfand, Yasser Munif, Asya El-Meehy, Aron Lund, Sam Heller, Cilja Harders, Dina Wahba, Monica Marks, Michael Stephens, Ursula Lindsey, Marc Lynch, Jonathan Guyer, Laura C. Dean, Sima Ghaddar, and Sultan al-Qassemi.
Century Foundation fellow Sam Heller returned to Beirut from Syria over the weekend, where he attended a government-backed conference —the first of its kind in years, with Western journalists, analysts and political researchers invited to hear the government’s point of view. He spent a week in Damascus. Century Foundation fellow Thanassis Cambanis talks with Sam about his first impressions.
Thanassis: Welcome back from Syria, Sam. We’re glad to have you back in Beirut. When was the last time you were in Syria prior to this trip?
Sam: I lived in Syria between 2009 and 2010, but I haven’t been back since. I actually left Syria to do a two-year master’s degree in Arabic that would have taken me back to Damascus for its second year—but that was 2011, so that obviously didn’t happen.
Since I turned back full-time to researching Syria in 2013, I’ve devoted most of my time and energy to looking at the Syrian opposition and Syria’s opposition-held areas. What I’ve understood about conditions inside regime-held western Syria, including Damascus, has been filtered through the media or second-hand fragments, from people who travel in and out.
But for all I’ve written about Idlib, I’ve never actually been there. It’s Damascus—and, to a lesser extent, al-Hasakeh in Syria’s east—that reflects my actual, lived experience in Syria. And so it’s good to be back and see the situation in the part of the country I knew best, if only to further ground myself in something real.
Thanassis: What was your first impression on this trip?
Sam: I don’t think this trip necessarily upturned my understanding of conditions inside. But it was useful to see things firsthand and to be able to put some meat on my existing impressions of the functioning of the regime and life in government-held areas.
And this might be shallow, but for me—as an outsider, and as someone who missed the worst years of the war in Damascus in 2013 and 2014—I was struck by how much was the same. The city and the society have obviously been militarized; Damascus is filled with checkpoints and uniformed men. And it seems like everyone, if you ask, has a story of economic hardship, displacement, or the death of friends and family. And yet, even while everything is sort of worse, much of what I knew about Damascus is still there.
Read the full interview on The Century Foundation website.
Posted November 4th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing
AMERICAN ELECTION OBSERVERS often talk about the October surprise, the last-minute revelation that can shift the outcome. In international affairs, there’s a potentially more dangerous phenomenon: the November blitz.
When American presidential elections produce a transition — a sure thing when the incumbent isn’t running, like this year — the 10 weeks between Election Day and the inauguration can produce a jumble of last-minute power grabs and other maneuvers by governments overseas.
Sensing danger ahead under a new president, or gambling that America will be busy with its leadership transition, foreign powers often make bold, risky, or destabilizing moves during the lame-duck period of an outgoing president. Sometimes the architects think they’ll never get a better deal. In other cases, they expect to irritate the United States but figure they’ll escape with minimal backlash from a president on the way out.
The most recent example came in 2008 after Barack Obama’s election, when Israel unleashed a war in Gaza. The operation prompted international opprobrium for the widespread strikes against civilian targets. Israel launched the war on Dec. 28, 2008, and ended it just two days before Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009. Officials gambled that George W. Bush, the pro-Israel president they knew, would be angry but not enough to withhold weapons deliveries or otherwise punish Israel — and they were right. It was a classic November blitz, even though it took place in December and January.
Reaching further back to the closing months of 2000, President Bill Clinton pulled every string he could conjure to force Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to reach a historic peace deal. With just days left in his presidency the effort unraveled.
Today, the world feels even more unsettled than it did eight years ago. Predictability is the grease that keeps the international system humming, and it’s in short supply. Nowadays figures such as Vladimir Putin — not to mention the GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump — have injected unprecedented unpredictability into international rhetoric. Oil prices and financial markets haven’t behaved consistently, and hot wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Libya have to some degree drawn in almost every major military power in the world. Far-right movements in Europe and the United States have opened up new, dark possibilities: The age of open borders could be drawing to a close, while the supposedly stabilizing umbrella of international agreements and institutions is being strained more than at any point since the end of World War II.
That volatile mix opens the door to gambles. What kind of lame-duck period meltdowns and provocations can the United States expect after Nov. 8, and can it do anything to minimize the risk?
THE TOP FOREIGN contender for machinations in the lame-duck period is the same culprit already blamed for an October surprise: Russia. Just as Putin’s security state is alleged to be behind hacking and other shady moves to help Trump, Russia’s preferred candidate, win the US election, it is highly likely to move in the interregnum to shore up its position.
“Americans voting for a president on Nov. 8 must realize that they are voting for peace on planet Earth if they vote for Trump,” Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky said, according to Reuters. “But if they vote for Hillary, it’s war. It will be a short movie. There will be Hiroshimas and Nagasakis everywhere.”
Zhirinovsky is a bombastic bit player in Russia, but his aggressive rhetoric comes as part of a Kremlin campaign to reassert Russian power and roll back American gains since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Putin has long been irked that NATO, America’s original anti-Soviet alliance, absorbed most of the former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe and expanded right up to Russia’s borders in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. In October, he issued a list of specific demands to the United States, including the end of all anti-Russia sanctions, the rollback of NATO, and compensation to Russia.
While these demands might seem crazy from an American perspective, they form a negotiating position. If Putin can create a rash of new facts on the ground in a hurry, before Obama’s successor gets installed in the White House, then his agenda will have to be taken more seriously.
The Russian leader could try to put an incoming US president on the defensive by provoking a crisis with the Baltic republics. (Trump has made comments during the campaign to suggest if he were president, he might not honor NATO’s commitment to defend the vulnerable Baltics from Russia.)
Putin could also scrap more of the US-Russia nuclear agreements, in order to shift the conflict with Washington away from conventional wars, like the fights in Syria and Ukraine, and onto the much scarier plane of nuclear war. Since 1991, we’ve grown inured to the risk of Armageddon, a fear that Putin seems eager to revive.
A really shocking November maneuver could take surprising forms. Putin could threaten to deploy nuclear-capable weapons to Syria or Cuba. He could aggressively deploy his navy and air force in close proximity to NATO. He could send flash-mob invaders into the Baltics and annex territory, like he did in Crimea.
DISRUPTORS WITH A long-term agenda have the biggest incentive to strike during the lame-duck period, since they are trying not only to provoke a reaction but set the stage for a later negotiation. That’s why the lame-duck period is not such fertile ground for nihilist terrorist groups whose main goal is to goad the US leadership into overreaction; they are more likely to want to target a early-term president.
In the Middle East, some of the usual culprits are also unlikely to act. Israel has had a testy relationship with Obama. But it considers Clinton a stalwart supporter of Israeli government policy, and Trump, despite some boisterous comments during the campaign, has gone out of his way to reassure boosters of the Israeli government. Unlike in 2008, Israeli officials seem confident that they’ll get a more sympathetic ear in the next White House, so they’ll have little interest in major lame-duck period shifts with Gaza or along the borders with Lebanon and Syria.
On the contrary, Saudi Arabia has every reason to accelerate its ill-conceived war in Yemen, which the United States unwisely backed as a concession to a Saudi monarchy that felt sidelined by Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. As the war crimes have piled up, Obama at last in October ordered a long-overdue review over American support for the Yemen war. Reading the tea leaves, Saudi Arabia’s leaders can expect the United States to curtail or even cut off military support in the near future. Certainly, the next US president will have a free hand to pull out of the ugly Yemen war.
This is precisely the most combustible recipe for a desperate November blitz. Knowing that it can’t win the war outright and install its preferred leader in Yemen, Saudi Arabia might seek to hobble its Yemen opponents as much as possible with more of the same sort of widespread bombing with which it has targeted Yemen’s political class and infrastructure.
Not all lame-duck foreign policy flare-ups occur in the Middle East. The main issues confronting the United States remain the same: countering great power threats, containing nuclear proliferation, and battling terrorism, most prominently from the Islamic State.
Beyond the already boiling Middle East, there are other pressure points ripe for November surprises. In the South China Sea and its disputed islands, for instance, China has been pushing hard. It could make a further show of force, further entrenching its claims over what promises to be a focal point of dangerous great-power competition on the next president’s watch.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the man who proudly compared himself to Hitler on account of his campaign to capture or kill millions of drug addicts, has said Obama can “go to hell” while threatening to “break up” with America. America’s Asia strategy relies on a unified, concerted counterweight to China — a carefully crafted entente that Duterte seems gleefully willing to shatter. A break in the US-Philippines relationship could drastically shift the balance of power in Asia. Duterte seems both reckless and shrewd enough to use a realistic breakup threat as leverage to force America to back down on its threats to punish him for his endemic abuse of human rights.
The lame-duck period invites malingerers, spoilers, rogues, and all manner of American rivals to fire shots across Washington’s bow. North Korea already periodically rattles the world with rocket launches and nuclear tests. It might feel the need to do so again now as a warning to Clinton or Trump.
WHAT CAN OBAMA do to get out ahead of these kind of prospective lame-duck period spoiler moves? Are there spoiler moves of his own that Obama could make, as a gift to America — or his successor?
In foreign affairs, Obama has been systematic and cerebral; he has tried to follow the policies that he laid out in his own speeches. He has also been very open with his frustrations about annoying allies that pursue their own ends and flout their American patron.
Free to pursue his conscience without risk in any future election campaign, Obama could make unilateral foreign policy moves that could catch America’s rivals off guard. For an opportunist, the lame-duck period cuts both ways.
For starters, Obama could sow heartache among whiny allies, cutting or freezing military aid that foreign governments would then have to earn back, through better cooperation, from Obama’s successor. The list is long and insalubrious, but Obama could take some of the political blowback for himself and turn the tables on entitled clients who act like aid and weapons from America are their birthright.
Saudi Arabia relies exclusively on America’s defense umbrella for its security. Any threat that it could seek weapons elsewhere, such as Russia or China, rings hollow, since its entire defense establishment is built on American hardware, resupply, and trainers. Washington could freeze arms sales, pending a lengthy review of rights violations in the Yemen war — pointedly reminding its brittle Gulf ally that Washington also holds cards in the relationship.
Other relationships ready for “right-sizing” include Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey. In each case, Obama could slow down or stall existing aid, on entirely procedural grounds, to remind each one of these sometimes quarrelsome client states that they need to earn their special relationships with the United States, rather than straining them.
This year’s ugly presidential campaign has stoked racism and xenophobia. As a result, the United States, already a malingerer when it comes to admitting refugees, has lagged worldwide. Obama raised America’s tiny quota, but it remains at symbolic levels, with few slots reserved for people displaced from key trouble spots like Syria and Iraq.
Obama could rip a page out of the playbook of his Canadian colleague Justin Trudeau, who promised to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees in his first two months in office. (It took him four months, but he accomplished the target in February.) Surely if Canada can manage such a feat, so can the far larger United States.
An Obama November surprise to admit refugees would be a generous about-face. It would shift politics away from fear of terrorism to embrace America’s melting-pot identity — and create a fait accompli for his successor. Even if Clinton wins, she would be unlikely to take such an initiative in the face of political challenges from the anti-immigrant right, which Trump exemplifies.
Obama could also erase a blot on America’s reputation by closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, where 61 detainees — many of them held indefinitely and without charge — languish in legal limbo. America’s island prison is the most egregious symbol of the post-9/11 overreaction, which enshrined the notion of an endless war against terrorism, a tactic which will never disappear from the face of the earth. Obama promised in his 2008 campaign to close Guantanamo, but his determination was foiled by the complicated politics and logistics. However, he has the executive authority to close this loophole in America’s constitutional rule of law. Come Nov. 8, he’ll have the political freedom to do it.
Washington can even use the lame-duck leverage in sectors removed from the usual business of war and peace, like the airline industry. The United States is in trade talks right now with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar over a persistent source of discord: the subsidies that give those countries’ airlines a competitive edge over US airlines. There’s now reportedly a move afoot by the Gulf monarchies to take whatever deal they can get now from Obama’s State Department. After a campaign that raised protectionist ire and anger about unfair advantages to foreign competitors, there would be increased scrutiny on those subsidies.
Powerful governments with nothing to lose can be dangerous. And as we’ve painfully learned over the last year, uncertainty in international relations can breed violent and destabilizing competition for power.
The 10 weeks that follow American Election Day — the single most important date on the calendars of schemers and plotters worldwide — offer peril. For a departing American president who’s looking toward the history books, they also offer opportunity.
Interesting review essay by Gerard Russell includes Once Upon a Revolution in its discussion. Read the whole essay the New York Review of Books. or below.
Our recent attempt to run an Arab state did not end well. During just over a year in which the US- and UK-staffed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administered Iraq, that country began its descent into the abyss of violence and political and economic dysfunction in which it has languished ever since. In Britain on July 6 an exhaustive public inquiry led by the former civil servant Sir John Chilcot concluded seven years of work in which it tried to understand what went wrong. Its conclusion, in essence: Don’t do it again.
I did not serve in the CPA myself, but I did subsequently go out to assist Iraq’s first elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in 2005. I hoped that a government of Iraqis, elected by Iraqis, would solve the problems that foreigners had been unable to address. I was disappointed to find that this did not happen. Violence worsened; many sectors of government barely functioned; Jaafari himself, a kindly man, behaved as a scholar rather than a statesman. Western visitors were baffled to be engaged in discussions of the minutiae of American history, while not far away Baghdad was literally burning. People began to long for a stronger leader. In due course autocratic Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was brought in to replace Jaafari.
There are many lessons to take from the Iraq debacle. The postwar missteps were legion. If the CPA had enfranchised Iraqis faster, instead of trying to install a blatantly American occupation government; if it had not rushed ahead with de-Baathification and the disbanding of the army; if it had paid more attention to the religious divide that was tearing the country apart—if, if, if. I myself doubt that it could ever have been a success. For one thing, such missteps were inevitable when the CPA’s principal loyalty was not to the Iraqi people but to the American government. Few Iraqis, furthermore, were willing to invest in an occupation that was self-declared to be a short-term one.
Second, based on my own experience, I do not think that the Iraqi politicians themselves had particularly good answers to their country’s problems. Perhaps there were no quick solutions to be had, but only the slow rebuilding of an abused and shattered state. If so, the most important lesson for us is that we should be doubly and triply cautious about breaking something that is so hard to reassemble.
That leaves the possibility that such regimes can be overthrown by their own people. InFrom Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sciences Po in Paris, looks at just a few of the countries in which there were waves of protests from the end of 2010 until 2012: Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, and Egypt. These differ widely, especially since Filiu also adds Algeria, in which there were not only protests but bitter, violent conflict. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak resigned but the military, which had propped up his rule, ultimately regained power. In Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled and a democracy was peacefully installed. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has used barrel bombs and Russian and Iranian help to remain in power; while in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh has turned to the Houthi rebels to back him in a civil war. Filiu omits Libya, for reasons that do not quite convince, and Iraq.
What all these countries except Tunisia did share in the twentieth century was the melancholy and ironic fate of Arab nationalist revolutions—against British-backed monarchy or French direct rule—for the most part resulting in regimes that were more authoritarian, and in certain ways more self-seeking, than the ones they replaced. In 1952, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser deposed King Farouk of Egypt in the name of Arab freedom, but he then abolished or controlled the courts, parliament, and press and launched external military adventures to undermine his rivals. French rule in Syria gave way in the 1940s to a chaotic sequence of different governments before Hafez al-Assad violently took and maintained control in 1970. The Algerian revolutionaries who overthrew French rule in 1962 then divided up power among themselves and later canceled an election that would have displaced them. These leaders used external wars, internal witch-hunts, and talk of foreign conspiracies to legitimize their rule; and at the same time, to subsidize it, they tolerated or brought about huge black economies.
If they had oil, they used it to keep themselves in power. Without oil, Filiu observes, they used the very instability resulting from their own policies as evidence that they needed US aid in order to keep terrorists from taking over. The fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in 2014, he hints, could have been contrived by then Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as a way to make himself indispensable. (To understand the full horror of such a suggestion, one must know that Maliki, who was installed by the US, is a Shia, and that the Shia are enemies and the principal targets of the Islamic State.)
Bashar al-Assad today says that we should stand against Islamic terrorism. It was only five years ago, Filiu points out, that he was setting terrorists free from his prisons—a cunning and ruthless Saddam-style maneuver designed to undermine more moderate opponents. Just over ten years ago Assad helped to send terrorists across the border into Iraq. Himself an Alawite, regarded by these same jihadi terrorists as an apostate deserving death, he nonetheless helped the jihadi movements gain strength. Why? Because doing it created a threat to Western and Russian interests to which Assad could present himself as the solution.
Likewise, when Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen became America’s ally against terrorism, it would have done him no good at all if terrorism had truly been wiped out in his country. He would then have had no value for the Americans. He needed to be a good ally against the terrorist threat, but in order to stay in power, Filiu writes, he needed that threat to continue to exist. In February 2006, twenty-three al-Qaeda detainees were mysteriously able to escape from a high-security Yemeni jail. The outcome was that more American money was paid to Saleh in order to combat the increased threat of terrorism that the jailbreak had caused.
Filiu’s analysis is acute in providing such explanations of how the terror threat is used in order to obtain money and power from the West, but his prescription may sound too easy. “More democracy should be the answer,” he says—but some democracies behave in the same way. Bin Laden lived near one of Pakistan’s military academies for several years while Pakistan—ostensibly democratic when not a dictatorship—presented itself as a necessary ally in the war against al-Qaeda. The Afghan government elected after 2001 solicited funds to fight the drug trade, while being very heavily invested in the drug trade. Assad and Saleh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, deceive the United States in their counterterrorist activities because their relations with the US are based on manipulation on both sides. Neither side likes or trusts the other. Elections alone will not change that.
Still, Filiu’s book should make us think harder about the economics of power. When I was a political officer in Afghanistan we lacked an understanding of the hidden profits driving the conflict, the secret ways in which government officials made money from the war, and the financial deals done under the table between ostensible enemies. Such networks of corruption, once established, are uncontrollable. Like drugs in sport, corruption confers a competitive advantage that few can resist. In turn, the widespread practice of corrupt payoffs creates secret Mafia-like networks of shared criminality.
Once the use of corrupt money becomes a standard practice, it is the official who stays clean who’s taking the risk: he might be seen by his corrupt colleagues as dangerous. Sometimes those who are at the apex of the pyramid of corruption may be so much in hock to their criminal cronies that they fear to go straight. An Afghan politician widely rumored to be a kingpin in the drug trade spoke to me with a candor masked by the pretense that he was speaking hypothetically. A politician who has a narcotics network, he said, cannot simply walk away from crime: his family and dependents, his entire group of political associates, would turn on him if he did. No, he said with feigned weariness, such a person would have to stick with it.
I have thought of that comment when people have predicted that Bashar al-Assad could easily be persuaded to leave Syria and go into exile in Russia. They ignore that he is to some extent caught in the web of loyalties that he himself spun. To leave, and abandon his clients and backers, would be a risky betrayal. He might never make it to the airport.
In Assad’s case, of course, the allegiances were to some extent strengthened by the complex religious makeup of Syria, whose minorities in some cases fear Islamism more than they fear Assad’s continued rule. In Afghanistan, tribes had a part in cementing these relationships. Elsewhere they have to be built through intermarriage and institutional loyalties. It can be hard to see the strands of the web, let alone unpick them. This is another reason why occupying and trying to run a foreign country is a doomed endeavor. Some smaller lessons, though, do occur to me that could be learned from Filiu and applied to situations like Afghanistan.
Corruption is a weed whose roots go deep and wide; if possible, it has to be torn up quickly. Our Afghanistan aid policy should have done that, instead of flooding the Afghan economy with money that heightened economic divisions and provided ample opportunities for unscrupulous people to enrich themselves. We should have been more careful whom we helped. We should, too, have been tougher in confronting official criminality. The Afghan election in 2009 was riddled with it, on both sides—because, as I’ve mentioned, it gives a competitive advantage.
Filiu does not take up such reforms in convincing detail; but as a diagnosis his book is written with scholarship, passion, and clarity. Still, a central question did not seem addressed. What price is worth paying to change a corrupt or dictatorial government? I felt that the omission of Libya from the book was a missed opportunity to confront this question. Muammar Qaddafi was an appalling dictator; his overthrow, however, led to violent chaos involving a variety of competing factions, in which thousands have been killed. Can the struggle for democracy be conducted with less cost? Is the cost worth it?
In A Rage for Order. Robert Worth takes a much more pessimistic view than Filiu. It was, he writes, a “willed refusal” of the US and its allies to see that the Arab uprisings of 2011 would end in “civil war and Islamist bloodlust.” But the protesters, he writes, stood for hope instead of despair, and “you couldn’t help rooting for them.”
Yet against relentless enemies, the protesters, as Worth closely and perceptively observed them, lacked cohesion, guile, and pragmatism. That is also the view of Thanassis Cambanis, a journalist and a teacher at Columbia University, who in Once Upon a Revolution follows some of Egypt’s young secular activists and the story of Tahrir Square from the first surprisingly successful march against then President Mubarak in 2011, through to the election of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2014 and the reemergence of the security forces as Egypt’s ruling class. He laments the revolutionaries’ mistakes: “their incoherence, their absence of tactical innovation, their inability to forge ideas.” Well-intentioned secular liberals were quickly brushed aside by Egypt’s two most powerful factions—the Islamists and the security forces. The result in 2012 was the doomed pact by which the Muslim Brotherhood would be elected to the presidency on condition that the military’s privileges remain intact.
Cambanis seems to me too harsh: the secular liberal revolutionaries, who wanted the downfall of the entire government system but not religious rule, never had a chance. For one thing, as Filiu observes, it can take decades to build a cohesive group capable of holding power. Filiu argues that the Egyptian army officer caste has evolved over the past decades into a semihereditary “Mamluk” elite, since members of top military families marry among themselves. The Muslim Brotherhood is famously secretive, with a strong sense of discipline adopted from Islam’s old Sufi orders, and an element of fascism that was much admired in the Arab world when the Brotherhood was founded in 1928. Again, its families tend to intermarry, cementing loyalties. The revolutionaries, by contrast, were mostly surprised to find themselves in Tahrir Square at all. They had no time to build a movement that could protect itself, make alliances, and have plausible plans to govern.
Furthermore, in Egypt, large parts of the population were willing to accept the power of the military or were sympathetic to it. When the army turned against the protesters, their cause was lost. “In Egypt’s case,” Cambanis writes, “love of the military and comfort with authoritarianism run deep.” Many people preferred stability above all, believing “that freedoms are luxuries to be enjoyed only when existential threats have been tamed.” Cambanis disagrees, seeing pluralism and due process as the best long-term guarantees of security; but he does not show how they could be introduced.
A third factor affected the events in Egypt. It was easier than many expected to gather a crowd for Mubarak’s ouster. He had no great accomplishments, his repression of dissidents could be brutal, and the ostentatious wealth of his new elite was grating. Yet some of those in the crowd waving placards against Mubarak are now firm supporters of President Sisi. They were in Tahrir not to bring an end to military rule, but to bring an end to Mubarak. The initial astonishing success of the demonstrations masked the fact that many who took part in them had little sense of how to deal with the forces they would face when Mubarak left.
A problem with secular revolution in much of the contemporary Arab world is that religion, usually of a rather intolerant kind, is often popular. Egypt, post-Tahrir, elected a Muslim Brother as its president. The representation of women and minorities in government promptly diminished. Turkish democracy, too, has been tending toward the religious right. There is a long-standing history of such tendencies. During the 1970s, when Anwar Sadat wanted to establish his own base of support in Egypt, he decided that official support for Islam and for religious authorities would be the best way to do it. When facing protests after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia toughened its religious laws, calculating that this would be popular.
Far from wanting a separation of church and state, two thirds of Egyptians in 2010 (according to a Zogby poll) wanted the clergy to have more of a role in government. As Worth ably describes, an increasingly aggressive piety had been one of the results of the country’s mass migration from the countryside into shantytowns and shabby suburbs skirting Cairo:
In the misery of these new surroundings, populist preachers gradually transformed Islam from the traditional religion of the migrants’ ancestors into something new…. It became a shield they could rattle at infidels at home and abroad. It made them feel they belonged to something higher and better than the Westernized urban elite who despised them.
Partly in response to the growth of Islamism, secular and liberal opposition groups have often successfully been co-opted by governments. This in turn has made Islamist parties the main beneficiaries of revolution. More liberal figures are often easy to denounce as feloul. meaning adherents of the past regime. Few liberals, too, have made the intensive efforts to cultivate relations with the working classes that have been made by the Islamists.
The power of religious extremism and the damage it did to protest movements is a theme that comes across in Worth’s subtly insightful survey of the Arab uprisings. The emergence of the Islamic State has taken the pressure off Assad, just as he may have known it could when he released jihadis from prison in 2011. Islamic extremists likewise have emerged in Yemen, as part of a rebellion against its ruler in 2011, which now has become a civil war. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood acted so arbitrarily that it unified, as Worth shows, much of the population against it, making victory easy for President Sisi. The power vacuum created by the war in Libya has opened up space for violent Islamists as well.
It might be that in order for democracy to succeed in the Middle East, the nature of religion there must change as well. Intolerant Islamism may have to weaken before democracy can take root. A sense of national loyalty must take precedence over religious solidarity.
These conditions may exist in Tunisia. In one of the final sections of A Rage for Order. Worth describes the country’s efforts to form and maintain a democratic society. Tunisia, he writes,
had been the cradle of the 2011 uprisings, and in many ways the most hopeful. This was a small, pacific country that seemed—on the map—to hover in the Mediterranean between Africa and Europe. It had none of the gunpowder of its neighbors: no sectarian rifts, no tribal strife, no violent insurgencies, no oil. The army was weak and apolitical.
Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s dictator, fled just days after protesters reached the capital, and by the fall of 2011 Tunisia held elections in which Ennahda, “the mildest and most democratic Islamist party in history,” won enough of the Tunisian parliament to form a government.
Still, Worth writes, Ennahda was “reluctant to alienate its ideological base, which included many harder-line Islamists.” Led by the liberal Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi, the party allowed these hard-line groups to flourish, and before long Ansar al-Sharia—a Salafist organization calling for the creation of an Islamic state—was holding rallies across the country. In 2013, two leftist politicians were assassinated by jihadis with ties to Ansar al-Sharia. Facing an anti-Islamist backlash, and fearing a civil war, Ennahda resigned from the government and agreed to new elections.
In his final chapter, Worth gives a remarkable account of the way in which this transition of power was made. It offers some hope for a better way forward in handling the disputes that arise between the revolutionaries and the feloul. or the Islamists and the religious liberals, or indeed between different factions of any kind in a region where politics is too often a winner-take-all game. Relying on interviews and other accounts, Worth describes in detail the two men mainly responsible for averting civil war in Tunisia: Rachid Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi, founder of the secular Nidaa Tounes party and now president.
Ghannouchi and Essebsi came from very different backgrounds. One was a poor rural Islamist, the other a dedicated secularist from a long line of landed Tunisian aristocrats who had worked for the modernizing dictator Habib Bourguiba, and had been an ambassador under Ben Ali. The mere announcement that they were holding talks brought outraged condemnations, each accused of betraying his respective side. But the negotiations continued, and, as Worth writes, the two men
discovered that they had some things in common…. For all his secularism, Essebsi knew the Koran well, and often quoted it. Both men had been traumatized as boys by encounters with the French military, at almost exactly the same age…. Essebsi began to feel that his Islamist counterpart was a Tunisian patriot. And Ghannouchi realized that Essebsi had—like him—grown uncomfortable with Bourguiba’s autocratic ways long before the Ben Ali era began.
In January 2014, a new constitution was adopted, thanks largely to the work of these two men, each of whom faced fierce resistance from his own party. In the elections that followed, Ennahda received 27.8 percent of the vote, while Nidaa Tounes received 37.6 percent, and the two formed the coalition government now in power.
Tunisia’s current state is nevertheless fragile—it faces not only a crisis of lack of jobs and foreign investment, but also the threat of terror attacks from groups like al-Qaeda’s North African branch. Tunisia is per capita the biggest source of volunteers for the Islamic State including the assailant in the July 14 massacre in Nice. Two recent terror attacks have badly damaged the country’s tourism industry, which accounts for roughly 14.5 percent of its GDP. Worth’s conclusion about Tunisia strikes the note of realism that characterizes his book: “Even if the equilibrium holds,” he writes,
it is hard to say what kind of legacy will be granted to Tunisia’s grand old men. The idea that they achieved a historic synthesis, a reweaving of the country’s Islamic and Western ancestries, is an appealing one. And in many ways, Tunisia did seem to have pulled back from the crater’s edge in mid-2015. The coalition government was coalescing and planning reforms, albeit slowly. Most of the Islamists seemed to have come around to the belief in compromise and reconciliation. Leftists spoke optimistically about a working relationship with the people they’d once hoped to eradicate.
But the greatest dangers and the greatest opportunities lay beyond the country’s borders. Five years after the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisians still hoped that their small country could be a model, spreading its dream of reconciliation across a region troubled by war and tyranny. They also knew the same winds could blow in reverse and smash everything they had built.
Ever since Russia reneged on an ill-conceived ceasefire plan for Syria in September and participated in a barbarous military campaign in Aleppo. the crescendo of American voices calling for some action in Syria has risen a notch, apparently reaching the White House this week.
Throughout the Syria crisis, the U.S. government bureaucracy and key power centers in the foreign policy elite have espoused Obama’s version of restraint and resignation, toeing a position along the lines of “Syria is a mess, but there’s little we can do.” Lately, though, an escalatory mindset has taken hold, with analysts and politicians floating proposals to defend Syrian civilians and confront an expansionist Russia.
“I advocate today a no-fly zone and safe zones,” Hillary Clinton said in the most recent debate, taking a position starkly more interventionist than the president she served as secretary of state. She continued: “We need some leverage with the Russians, because they are not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution, unless there is some leverage over them.”
Does this kind of talk represent a sea change in decision-making circles? After years of decrying missteps in the ill-begotten wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and debating America’s shrinking footprint, is there now a convergence to once again embrace interventionism among politicians, public opinion and the foreign policy elite that some in the White House derided as “the blob”?
I think there is, and those of us who have espoused a more vigorous intervention in Syria and a more activist response to the Arab uprisings need now to take extra care in the policies we propose. As the pendulum swings back toward a bolder, more assertive American foreign policy, we must eschew simplistic triumphalism and an unfounded assumption that America can determine world events. Otherwise we risk repeating the mistakes of America’s last, disastrous wave of moralism and interventionism after 9/11.
It’s important not to overstate the backlash to Obama’s calls for humility and restraint, and not too ignore the activist and moralistic strains that connect Obama’s foreign policy to that of his predecessors. With those caveats, it seems like we’re on the cusp of a return to a more activist foreign policy.
That doesn’t make us all interventionists yet, but it does expose the United States to renewed risk, making it all the more important to restore some honesty and clarity to the debate. Any discussion about America’s global footprint has to acknowledge that it’s still huge. America has not retrenched or turned its back on the world. Any discussion about Syria has to acknowledge from the get-go that America already is running a billion-dollar military intervention there. So when we talk about escalating or de-escalating, we need to be clear where we’re starting. The United States is heavily implicated in all the Arab world’s wars, with few of its strategic aims yet secured. This unrealized promise has fueled frustration about America’s role.
Even Trump’s isolationist calls to tank the international order and make America great by impoverishing the rest of the world echo, in part, a desire for strength and moral clarity. The likely next president, Hillary Clinton, has steadily stood in the American tradition of liberal internationalism which has been the dominant school of foreign policy thought since World War II. That history embraces an international order dominated by the United States and trending toward market economies, free trade, liberal rights, and a rhetorical commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights, which even in its inconsistent and opportunistic pursuit, has been considered anything from an irritant to a major threat to the world’s autocracies. This ideological package has underwritten America’s best foreign policy, like Cold War containment, and its worst, like the invasion of Iraq and the post-9/11 savaging of the rule of law.
Syria’s war has been the graveyard of the comforting, but vague, idea that America could lead from behind and serve as a global ballast while somehow keeping its paws to itself. Other destabilizing realities helped upend this dream, among them Europe’s financial crisis, the rise of the extreme right, the Arab uprisings, the collapse of the Arab state system and a new wave of wars, unprecedented refugee flows, and the expansionist moves of a belligerent, resurgent Russia.
Pointedly, however, Syria has embodied the failure of the hands-off approach. Its complexity also serves as a warning to anyone eager to oversimplify. Just as it was foolish to pretend that the meltdown of Iraq and Syria, and the rise of the Islamic State, were some kind of local, containable imbroglio, it is also foolish to pretend that a robust, interventionist America can resolve the world’s problems. Neither notion is true.
America is the preeminent world power. It can use its resources to manage conflicts like Syria’s in order to pursue its interests. Success flows from clearly defining those interests and intervening sagely, in a coordinated fashion across the globe. America has played a disproportionate role in designing the international institutions that created a new world order after World War II. For a a time after the end of the Cold War, it enjoyed being alone at the top of the global power pyramid. American influence swelled for many reasons, highest among them American wealth, comprehensible policy goals, and appealing values. But dominance is not the same thing as total control, and a newly assertive U.S. foreign policy still can achieve only limited aims.
The next president will have to recalibrate America’s approach to power projection – how to deter powerful bullies like Russia, how to manage toxic partnerships with allies like Saudi Arabia, how to contain the strategic fallout of wars and state failure in Iraq, Syria, and the world’s ungoverned zones. The most visible test right now is Syria. Syria is important – not least because of the 10 million displaced, the 5-plus million refugees, the half million dead. It is also important as the catalyst of widespread regional collapse in the Arab world, the source of an unprecedented refugee crisis, a hothouse for jihadi groups, and as a test of American resolve.
It’s harder and harder to find foreign policy experts willing, like Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson recently did inThe New York Times. to argue that any American effort to steer the course of Syria’s war will only make things worse. (British journalist Jonathan Steele made a similar argument this week in The Guardian that any Western effort to contain war crimes in Aleppo “threatens to engulf us all.”)
Figures from both major U.S. parties have increasingly shifted to arguing that the United States will have to experiment with some form of escalation, because the existing approach just hasn’t worked. Hillary Clinton’s team is apparently considering a range of options including no-fly zones or strikes on Syrian government targets. The ongoing shift is less the result of a revelation about Syria’s meltdown and more a reflection of American domestic politics and a consensus that it’s time to recalibrate America’s geostrategic great power projection.
As this debate gets underway in earnest, it is crucial to force all sides to draw on the same facts, and be honest about the elements of their policy proposals that are guesses. For example: It is a fact that Syria is in free fall and Iraq barely functions as a unitary state, with fragmenting civilian and military authority on all sides of the related conflicts. It is a guess that Russia has escalation dominance and is willing to pursue all options, including nuclear conflict, if the United States intervenes more forcefully in Syria. It is a fact that tensions between the United States and Russia are at a post-Cold War high. It is a guess that they will clash directly over Syria rather than Kaliningrad or Ukraine or some other matter. It is a fact that the rise of the Islamic State and the flow of millions of displaced Syrians has destabilized the entire Middle East and reshaped politics in Europe. It is a guess that if the United States shoots down some of Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters it will lead to more fruitful political negotiations among Syrian factions and their foreign sponsors.
Many of the competing poles of the American debate begin with assumptions that are shaky or downright false, and ignore the lion’s share of facts on the ground in Syria. Any honest assessment of the crisis demands humility. Any serious analyst taking a position on Syria has to acknowledge that there is no possibility of a neat solution, and no outcome that precludes civilian suffering, regional instability, and strategic blowback — whether one argues for increasing America’s intervention, as I have. or for further restraint, in keeping with President Obama’s position (or, for that matter, for an admission of rebel defeat and an acceptance of Bashar al-Assad’s enduring role).
Unfortunately, many interventionists ignore the low likelihood of success and the danger of escalating the war, while many restrainers downplay the major ongoing strategic risks posed by Syria’s meltdown. Marc Lynch, himself of the school of restraint, neatly dissected the incoherent underpinnings of the American debate in a recent War on the Rocks piece.
America cannot direct the course of events in Syria because the war is too complex and Russia too committed to Assad, Lynch argues. But with the regime’s war crimes accelerating, for political reasons America can no longer afford to be perceived as not trying harder, even if any extra effort is destined to fail. Lynch predicts that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency and pursue an escalation in Syria, which will fail for all the same reasons as America’s existing intervention. In a year’s time, Lynch argues, Syria will be worse off, and America will either back down or sink deeper into yet another doomed Middle Eastern war.
Sadly, Lynch might be right. But – and the tone of certainty in all the polemics and analysis makes it easy to forget – he might also be wrong. Happily, for the prospects of the debate over Syria, Lynch offers an example of striking the right tone. He is confident in his analysis but not sloppy with the facts. Now that escalation is more seriously on the table, we need a more honest debate.
While Lynch contributes a welcome measure of sobriety to the debate, even he sidesteps the initial fact that Obama’s policy has been to pursue a military intervention, leaving the implication that the status quo doesn’t somehow involve a major U.S. role in the Syrian war. That gets to the heart of the problem: Anti-interventionists won the internal debate in the Obama administration, swatting down proposals from cabinet members to expand the U.S. role, strike Assad when he used chemical weapons, and push harder for regime change. Instead, a Goldilocks notion of the “just-right” intervention governed U.S. policy in Syria since 2011 — enough to say we did something, not enough to be determinative. Yet this policy’s authors often present themselves as an embattled minority facing down the interventionist blob — a foreign policy establishment caricatured as prone to groupthink and which never met an intervention it didn’t like. The actual debate is between limited interventionists like Obama and expanded interventionists like Clinton. On the far ends are those who want a full withdrawal from the Levant and the mad hawks who’d like to see U.S. troops foment regime change in Damascus.
No serious position on Syria can ignore America’s existing, major and ongoing military intervention, or the frustrating reality that the United States and its allies tried and failed to steer the conflict in another direction. No serious position on Syria can ignore the war crimes, sectarianism, and intractability of Assad and his supporters. No serious position on Syria can ignore the very real risks of a direct conflict between the United States and Russia.
The big picture in Syria is daunting indeed. It encompasses a region in the grips of state failure. A coherent Syria policy cannot be divorced from the volatile region of which it is a lynchpin; nor can it be divorced from grand strategy and geopolitics. What happens in Syria affects American relations with much of the world.
America’s strategic depth and deterrent power are tangible assets that have taken a beating as a result of Washington’s contradictory, halting, and passive response to the Arab uprisings. The United States postponed a rethink of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, corroding the most productive aspects of the partnership while remaining wedded to the most toxic. America’s Saudi plight is most bitterly apparent in Washington’s almost casual, and fantastically wrong-headed, decision to support Saudi Arabia’s criminally executed war in Yemen — as if in apology for America’s pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal over Saudi objections.
British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson reflected the growing understanding that Western inaction has persisted long past the breaking point when he told a U.K. parliamentary committee yesterday that the siege of Aleppo had dramatically changed public opinion. “We cannot let this go on forever,” Johnson said. “We cannot just see Aleppo pulverized in this way. We have to do something.” Reportedly. British defense officials are considering how to enforce a no-fly zone without getting into a shooting war with Russia and are also considering attacks on the Syrian military.
It might be true, as analysts and former Obama administration officials keep pointing out, that the existing policy has been driven by good intentions and that any shifts or tweaks are unlikely to save Syria from ruination. It might be true that there are no pat solutions to the Syria crisis.
But that’s misleading, only part of the story. When America changes course, so will other players, including Russia, Iran, and the government of Syria. A different style of intervention from the one America is pursuing now could save some lives, which is no small accomplishment. And finally, while it’s not only about America, (or about Syria), an escalation in Syria that is designed to send messages to American rivals and contain the strategic fallout could, if well executed, produce yields in surprising places, as America’s deterrent stock rises and a renewed belief in American activism and engagement restores the U.S. role as global ballast.
We are not all interventionists yet, no matter how shrill the protests from the camp that has tried to defend every twist and turn of Obama’s Middle East policy and now finds itself suddenly on the losing side of the debate. But it is not foolish to hope that somewhere between the destructive overreach of George W. Bush’s militaristic foreign policy and Barack Obama’s pursuit of balance and restraint, there exists a happier medium where America’s never-ending engagement with the most troubled parts of the world yields better results.
Boys make their way through the rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel held area of al-Kalaseh neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, September 29, 2016. Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail
BEIRUT—For at least a year before the summer of 2016, civilians and fighters in rebel-held East Aleppo prepared for a siege they believed was both avoidable and inevitable. Correctly, it turns out, they calculated that the opposition’s bankrollers and arms suppliers—the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other “friends of Syria”—cared little for the well-being of civilians in rebel-held areas. Through the spring, contacts inside Aleppo prepared for the siege, expending minimal effort on appeals to the international community, which they assumed would be futile.
For all the world-weary resignation of the opposition fighters and other residents of rebel Aleppo, they have a well-earned pride in what they’ve done. They’ve maintained their hold on half of the jewel of Syria, and under withering assault, have cobbled together an alternative to Bashar al-Assad’s rule. “From the beginning of the revolution, we held Aleppo as the role model of the liberated city, that holds free elections, has an elected city council, and elected local committees that truly represent the people,” Osama Taljo, a member of the rebel city council in East Aleppo, explained over the phone after the siege began in earnest. “We insisted to make out of Aleppo an exemplar of the free Syria that we aspire to.”
Unfortunately, Aleppo has become an exemplar of something else: Western indifference to human suffering and, perhaps more surprisingly, fecklessness in the face of a swelling strategic threat that transcends one catastrophic war.
The last few weeks have piled humiliation upon misfortune for Aleppo, one of the world’s great cities, and already a longtime hostage of Syria’s never-ending conflict. Aided by the Russian military and foreign sectarian mercenaries, Syrian forces encircled East Aleppo over the summer. Rebels briefly broke the siege, but Assad’s forces fully isolated them just as Russia and the United States put the finishing touches on a dead-on-arrival ceasefire agreement that, contrary to its stated purpose, ushered in one of the war’s most violent phases yet. Instead of a cessation of hostilities, Syria witnessed an acceleration of the war against civilians, with East Aleppo as the showcase of the worst war-criminal tactics Assad has refined through more than five years of war.
Sieges violate international law, as well as specific United Nations resolutions, that, on paper, guarantee access to humanitarian aid to all Syrians but which in practice the government has disregarded. Aleppo—the biggest prize yet for Assad—has also been subjected to his most destructive assault. Throughout East Aleppo, Syrian or Russian aircraft have ruthlessly bombed civilians, singling out all healthcare facilities and first-responder bases. Bombs have ravaged well-known hospitals supported by international aid groups, along with the facilities of the White Helmets, the civil defense volunteers famous for digging casualties from rubble.
As if to test the proposition that the international community has just as little concern for its own reputation as it does for the lives of Syrian civilians—nearly half of whom have been displaced from their homes nationwide—Russia apparently chose, on September 19, the seventh day of the ceasefire, to bomb the first aid convoy en route to rebel-held Aleppo. That decision will be remembered as a fateful one.
Russia and Syria were following a timeworn blueprint: Use force to kill and starve civilians, then lie brazenly to avoid responsibility. In this case, the evidence is too clear and the trespass too toxic to let pass. So far, we’ve seen a sharp turn in rhetoric from the UN and Washington. Sooner or later, whether in the twilight of the Obama administration or in the dawn of his successor’s, we will see a much harder “reset” in Western relations with Russia.
For years, voices from Syria have raised the alarm. After years of dithering, even some members of the international community had the decency to follow suit, like Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The country is already a gigantic, devastated graveyard,” al Hussein said this summer, warning Syria’s belligerents that sieges and intentional starvation campaigns amount to war crimes. “Even if they have become so brutalized [that] they do not care about the innocent women, children, and men whose lives are in their hands, they should bear in mind that one day there will be a reckoning for all these crimes.”
Belatedly, Western leaders are joining the chorus. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who avoided taking a stand during years of violence against humanitarian organizations by the Assad regime, now publicly accuses Syria and Russia of war crimes. On September 30, the one-year anniversary of Russia’s direct entry into the war, Gareth Bayley, Britain’s Special Representative to Syria, issued a broadside. “From Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria, it has hit civilian areas and increasingly used indiscriminate weapons, including cluster and incendiary munitions. Its campaign has dramatically increased violence and prolonged the suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians,” he said, blaming Russia for at least 2,700 civilian deaths. “Russia has proved to be either unwilling or unable to influence Assad and must bear its responsibility for the Assad regime’s atrocities.
America’s top diplomats, too, rail against Russia futilely. In a recently leaked recording of a meeting between a ham-handed but apparently sincere U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and members of the Syrian opposition, Kerry admitted that he lost the internal debate in the administration for greater intervention, more protection of civilians, and a stiffer stand against Russia’s triumphalist expansionism. But like a good soldier, he has continued to flog a bad policy, pushing perhaps much too hard on the small constituency of opposition Syrians who remain committed to a pluralistic, unified, democratic Syria.
Perhaps Russia has been searching for the West’s actual red lines all along, exploring how far it could go in Syria without provoking any push back from the United States and its allies. Maybe it finally found them after it bombed the UN aid convoy in September. Only time will tell if the recent pitched rhetoric translates into action.
One of the few consistent goals of U.S. policy in Syria over the last year was to shift the burden of responsibility for the crisis, or even guilt, to Russia. Throughout long negotiations, Washington has bent over backwards to act in good faith, trusting against all evidence that Russia was willing to act in concert to push Syria toward a political settlement. America’s leaders today appear shocked that Russia was acting as a spoiler, a fact clear to most observers long ago.
With the latest agreement in ashes—literally—and an ebullient Russia convinced it will encounter no blowback for its war crimes, America has a political chit in its hands. For now, Russia thinks it can achieve its strategic goals by relentlessly destabilizing the international order and lying as gleefully and willfully as the Assad regime. The United States helped underwrite that international order when the UN came into being in 1945, laying down moral markers on atrocities like genocide and war crimes, and crafting a web of interlocking institutions that increased global security and prosperity. As its primary enforcer, the United States also has been its primary beneficiary.
Now that Russia, determined to reestablish its status after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, has pushed the United States into a humiliating corner and weakened that international order, it is raising the stakes. Either the United States will push back, or the disequilibrium will spread even further. In either case, many thousands more Syrians will perish. As Bassam Hajji Mustafa, a spokesman for the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement, one of the more effective, if violent, rebel militias influential around Aleppo, put it, “People have adapted to death, so scaring them with this siege is not going to work.” Those who remain in Aleppo echo this refrain again and again: The last holdouts have stayed out of conviction. It’s hard to imagine anything but death driving them out. “If Aleppo falls and the world stays silent, then that will be the end of the revolution,” Hajji Mustafa said.
In the end, Aleppo is not a story about the West; it is a cornerstone of Syria and an engine of wealth and culture for the entire Levant. Aleppo is the story of the willful destruction of a pivotal Arab state, a center of gravity in a tumultuous region in sore need of anchors. It’s a story of entirely avoidable human misery: the murder of babies, the destruction of homes, the dismantling of a powerful industrial and craft economy.
The institutions of global governance are under strain and international comity is frayed; as yet, however, none of the steps toward dissolution are irreversible. Such shifts take place over decades, not months. But the crisis in Syria presents the most acute test yet, and demands of the United States an active, robust, and strategic response that reinforces its commitment to the architecture of global governance—a system threatened by spoiler powers like Russia and ideological attacks from nativists, the right-wing fringe, and other domestic extremists in the West.
Ignoring its responsibilities in Syria—and opening the door for Russia to pound away at the foundations of the international order—hurts not only Syrians but the entire world. Perhaps, finally, Assad and his backers have gone far enough to provoke an American defense of that indispensable order that America helped construct.
President Obama reflects during a meeting at the White House, March 15, 2009. The White House/Wikicommons
A generational war has engulfed the Levant. The ruination of Iraq and Syria is akin to a core meltdown within the Arab state system, with consequences that already have rocked the world: new wars flaring across the Middle East, political ferment in Turkey, a global refugee crisis, and the rise of the Islamic State group, to name just a few.
Today we can begin the sad work of taking inventory of an American presidency that aspired to a humane and humble foreign policy. President Barack Obama didn’t start the Levantine conflagration—that ignoble credit belongs to his predecessor—but he has kept America fighting in Iraq and deployed forces in Syria to support a vast, billion-dollar covert proxy effort. All to little effect.
The long, horrific war that President George W. Bush launched in March 2003, with his illegal invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, has shattered the cradle of civilization beyond all recognition. During the subsequent occupation, U.S. officials dismantled the pillars of the Iraqi state, including its military and bureaucracy, and then stood by as newly empowered sectarian warlords and mob bosses tore apart the country. Many wars flared simultaneously in Iraq, some of which spread to neighboring Syria after the popular uprising sparked there in 2011.
President Obama’s signal intellectual and policy contribution was his minimalist response towards the chaos left behind by Bush. American policy at turns sought to contain the implosion of Syria and the ongoing fighting in Iraq, and at others accelerated or tried to steer the conflict, often by trying to balance ethnic or sectarian militias in a manner that, perhaps inadvertently, deepened the hold of sectarian warlords.
The president’s lackluster attitude has poisoned much of the serious policy conversation in Washington. His policies have spread the spurious conviction that whatever happens in the Middle East is not a core U.S. or international interest, but rather a sad and regional affair. Days before Mosul fell to ISIS, an expert with the White House’s ear insisted to me that the jihadi movement was a containable local problem.
The folly of the Obama doctrine is reinforced by the conviction that violence in Mesopotamia and the Levant is neither of America’s making nor America’s responsibility to manage. Yet state failure in the wealthy, oil-rich, politically interconnected Arab heartland has fundamentally diminished global security—unfortunately just as some Middle East experts predicted.
What happens in Iraq doesn’t stay in Iraq. Politics and war are dynamic processes. There is mirroring, learning, exporting, and knowledge sharing among all manner of actors, including authoritarian rulers, local warlords, non-state militias, and terrorist movements. The experience gained by fighters of many stripes in Iraq’s first stage of civil war and anti-American resistance, from 2003 to 2006, has fed conflicts and militancy far afield in the Arab World. Today, the wars in Iraq, Syria, and surrounding the Islamic State cannot meaningfully be considered separate conflicts, as U.S. policymakers still vainly try to do.
American policy in a fragmenting wider Middle East has systematically failed to bridge the gap between its rhetoric and realities on the ground. In principle, the Middle East has been “right-sized” on the foreign policy agenda as a midlevel interest behind global warming, trade, and China, among others. In practice, Obama’s national security and foreign policy teams have focused the plurality of their energy on the Middle East.
Yet through all this dislocating turbulence, characterized by levels of murder, death and displacement not seen since the Second World War, President Obama has demurred that there isn’t anything more that the United States could do to cushion or even shape the partial disintegration of the Arab state system. Obama, reasonably, wanted to repair the toxic legacy of his predecessor. He was driven by negative aspirations—a desire not invade more Muslim countries, not to waste lives and colossal resources in military folly, not to behave as if the military were America’s only foreign policy tool. But that does not justify his belief that the Middle East is less important than claimed by foreign policy experts, whom the president’s close adviser Ben Rhodes collectively dismisses as “the blob.” The president appears to believe that the United States cannot direct events in places like Iraq and Syria, or anywhere else, and when it does try to steer events through military intervention, the result is usually a tragic parade of errors, like in Iraq.
It’s understandable that President Obama harbored a fantasy of washing his hands of the whole mess. The United States failed to achieve its goals in Iraq and Afghanistan despite killing many people and committing a great deal of resources. The results in Libya are more equivocal and America’s responsibility more broadly shared, but hardly make a case for successful U.S. intervention.
But the alternative to reckless interventionism cannot realistically be disengagement. The region’s conflicts implicate the United States and plenty of other foreign powers, along with the whole ethnic, sectarian and ideological panoply of a region that, despite generations of ethnic cleansing, hosts a staggering amount of diversity. America bears heavy responsibility as Israel’s guarantor power, which inextricably ties Washington to Israel’s conflicts with Palestinians and other regional players.
Far too late in the game, Obama has learned that saying that something doesn’t matter doesn’t necessarily make it so. Efforts to cauterize the Middle East and keep it at arm’s length have proved even more destabilizing (and attention-sucking) than a full-fledged policy commitment from the get-go. On what subjects do Obama and his national security advisers spend their time? Grudgingly, the Levant and its neighborhood. Obama’s agenda since 2011 has been hogged by, to a name few, Israel’s expansionism and its conflicts with Palestinians and others; the Arab revolts; Iran, the nuclear deal and its regional contest with Saudi Arabia; and the Yemen war. Grinding all along at the heart of the unending crisis is the Levant war, which America launched by choice with the invasion of Iraq.
The fantasy of American disengagement in the Middle East is just that: a fantasy.
Posted July 5th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing
Civilians inspected a burnt car after an airstrike in the rebel-controlled city of Idlib on Wednesday. Photo: AMMAR ABDULLAH/REUTERS
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas .]
SYRIA HAS BROKEN down much worse than anyone expected. For more than five years, a wide and mostly unsavory cast of Syrians and foreigners has been going for broke fighting over the pivotal Levantine state — settling for massive amounts of human suffering and breakdown of order in the short term while gambling on total victory in the long term.
A quick inventory beggars the mind: hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, the rise of the nihilistic jihadi Islamic State, a refugee crisis that has fractured the European Union, violence and instability across most of the Middle East, a superpower standoff between Russia and the United States, and finally, the teetering of the entire Arab state system.
The Arab state system’s collapse today threatens basic order and livelihood in many areas, including war-torn Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. It also has corroded the European Union, with an immigration crisis that has strained Turkey’s relations with the bloc and fueled a climate so toxic that it has spurred British voters to quit the European project.
The war’s consequences and scope appeared dramatically different from a few short years ago. Previously, Washington thought that Syria’s crisis would have limited consequences, no matter how terrible for the country’s citizens. President Obama staked his position on a well-intentioned read of recent history. After America’s failed Iraqi policy and ineffective regional intervention, the president reasoned that the United States could at least do less harm, for if Syria was going to be ripped apart, let others be to blame.
In the early years of Syria’s war, analysts and politicians who claimed the Levant was more important than the White House realized were dismissed as credulous rebel partisans or knee-jerk interventionists. Today the consequences of Syria’s meltdown have proven even more far-reaching than almost anyone predicted in 2011.
MILITARY ESCALATION IN Syria today is the best of a set of bad options. Even dissidents in the US Department of State have gone public with their desire for it. The United States is already deeply involved in the Syrian conflict and has declared its desire to use force and humanitarian aid to promote a political solution to the conflict. The idea is sound but requires a greater commitment — a final chance to do better, with some of Syria’s infrastructure and institutions still intact, Turkey undergoing a regional realignment, and with interventionists in Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah reassessing their own goals with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The only intransigent parties. in fact, are Assad and the Islamic State — neither of whom is likely to be part of any political solution in Syria.
For the United States, the question is profoundly unsettling — how is it possible to do the right thing in a conflict this messy? Indeed, it might already be too late to save Syria. But if no one tries, more catastrophic outcomes are all but guaranteed: the full collapse of Iraq and Syria, the long-term enshrinement of the Islamic State, an acceleration of the regional war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a wave of state implosions around the entire Arab world that will resonate for generations.
In Washington, the debate has tended to break along two lines — extreme isolationists, who think the United States can only do harm by getting more involved, and extreme interventionists, who’d like to see the Pentagon invade. White House policy has actually straddled the divide, dedicating considerable resources to managing the conflict but claiming that it can’t do more. The United States has deemed Syria’s survival important but not so important as to be classified a core national interest.
The time has come, however, to admit that the policy hasn’t achieved its aims. At this stage, probably, no course correction will be able to restore Syria to its pre-war level of development and unity. But the fallout from Syria has proven that the integrity of the Arab state system, as flawed as it is, is a vital interest for the United States as well as for the denizens of the Middle East and their neighbors.
So, help Syria’s neighbors staunch the bleeding or intervene more actively in the conflict? It’s a painful question, especially in light of the historical destruction that the United States wrought with its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the cavalierly mismanaged military occupation.
Escalation appears to be plagued by a range of dangerous and risky options. (A study I recently conducted for The Century Foundation explores America’s choices in detail.) The United States has the power to end the Assad government’s indiscriminate use of air power to drop barrel bombs on civilians and make life impossible in rebel-held areas. With occasional retribution against government air assets and targets, it can raise the cost of tactics that are also war crimes. It can also use military assets to directly protect its vetted armed proxies, so they can more effectively fight the Syrian government and the Islamic State, and gain stature within the non-jihadi armed opposition.
After years of eyeing the United States, America’s rivals have assessed that Obama would stay out of Syria. They probably think the same today, given that the president has only a few more months in office. As a result, Syria has become a wild playground for the militaristic excesses of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, the pivotal supporters of Assad’s government. These powers have opportunistically taken advantage of a void left by the United States, which has continued to intervene in the Syrian conflict but at a low ebb.
But a reinvigorated American role in the conflict would, paradoxically, make a political solution more likely once it became clear that Assad could never win outright. The greater chance of a political solution would not only save lives but also reestablish American stewardship of a world order that punishes war crimes, values civilians lives, and promotes rights, good governance, and open societies.
Unfortunately, a more robust American intervention would also bring the United States face to face with an expansionist Russia and Iran. Washington would have to use its military force with considerable skill and restraint in order to check these belligerent powers without being drawn into direct conflict. Fortunately, the US military has the technical capacity and experience to tilt the balance in Syria’s war without become a central party in the fight, and the last five years of conflict show that for all its bluster, the pro-Assad alliance has always carefully watched the United States and calibrated its war crimes and expansionist campaigns in line with its perception of what Washington will tolerate.
Left unchecked, Syria’s war will continue for another five to 10 years at least, with a full breakdown of the remaining national order. Syria will become a patchwork of villages ruled by competing warlords, without national institutions to govern and provide services. It will continue to export human suffering, refugees, and virulent ideologies like sectarianism and the Islamic State’s version of takfiri jihad.
The alternative — a US military intervention in Syria — is neither clean nor neat. With its local and regional partners, the United States would save some civilian lives and force some restraint onto the government side, perhaps reducing its worst war crimes. It would raise from zero to maybe 30 percent the chance of a negotiated settlement. It would also raise tensions between the United States and Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.
Perhaps most importantly, however, military intervention would show allies and rivals in the region that the United States still takes seriously its responsibilities as the single most dominant world power. By escalating in Syria, the United States would lay down a marker that Washington sees an interest in the Middle East and in a global order that stops rogue governments like Assad’s. Unless it wants to be seen as a force for entropy, state breakup, and fragmentation, Washington needs to put is muscle behind the goal of national coexistence, starting in Syria, where it should do what it can at this late stage to preserve a unitary state that grants equal rights to citizens of different sects and ethnicities.
President Obama tried to steer a middle course, backing away from direct intervention, despite initially drawing a red line if Assad used chemical weapons. While seemingly every country with a finger in the Middle East has funneled weapons, trainers, or fighters into Syria, the United States has spent billions of dollars on humanitarian aid and has provided just enough military assistance to the armed opposition to prevent it from being wiped out. But it has studiously avoided any action that would topple Assad.
Nearly a year ago, in September, Russia stepped into the void with a major military campaign to help Assad reclaim territory he had lost. Even Russia’s massive aid has failed to restore the regime’s position from a few years earlier, despite indiscriminate bombing of civilians in rebel-held areas and a systematic campaign to destroy hospitals, clinics, and other key infrastructure.
Furthermore, the United Nations has strained under the pressure of the Syria conflict, which officials describe as the greatest challenge in the UN’s history. UN officials have chosen to partner with Assad’s government, allowing it to block access to areas inhabited by rebel supporters. As a result, the supposedly impartial UN has become party to starvation and siege tactics employed by the government to force rebel communities to surrender.
Even with a history of failure and seemingly endless complications of future engagement, America can still positively shape the situation. It’s time for more action — humanitarian, military, and political — in order to reduce the catastrophic human toll, contain the strategic fallout, and reduce the chance of Syria becoming a fully failed state.
If we stay on the same course, Syria is guaranteed to collapse with even more of the toxic consequences we’re already suffering — the Islamic State, refugee flows, violence spreading into neighboring countries that are allies. It might already be too late to prevent a full meltdown, but if the United States doesn’t try to stave off the collapse, a vacuum is guaranteed.
ONE OF THE Islamic State’s first gestures after conquering a vast portion of the Syrian and Iraqi deserts was to bulldoze the sand berm delineating the official border between the two states. In one of its first propaganda videos from the summer of 2014, “ The end of Sykes-Picot ,” a bearded fighter walks solemnly through an abandoned checkpoint in the former no-man’s land. “Inshallah this is not the first border we shall break,” the fighter declares in English.
Many Westerners taking their first notice of the toxic Al Qaeda offshoot were mystified: Wait, the end of what?
But the historical reference was not obscure in the Middle East, which for exactly a century has suffered the consequences of borders drawn by two diplomats who had orders from the top but weren’t considered the best informed Middle East experts in their respective governments — Sir Mark Sykes, an Englishman, and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot.
Since then, the Middle East has suffered a profound cognitive dissonance between the official state, often demarcated by unnaturally straight borders, and the human geography of how people live and who wields power in the lands stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the Sykes-Picot agreement has been blamed for many long-running catastrophes, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the violently thwarted national aspirations of many Kurds, Arabs, and other groups.
Yet for all the rancor, the Sykes-Picot borders are already crumbling. The orderly national borders they drew — mostly to please the interests not of the people who lived on the land but of colonial masters Britain and France — have been superseded, though not necessarily in the manner that anti-colonial critics would like.
SYKES AND PICOT’S era was roiled by the Great War, the deadliest conflict the globe had known until that time, and defined by American President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic notion of self-determination. People across the world were supposedly going to be free to choose their own borders and shape their own nations.
That might have been the case in parts of Europe but not in the Middle East. More interested in destroying what remained of the Ottoman Empire and thwarting each other’s imperial aims, France and Britain agreed in secret on May 17, 1916, to carve up the region heedless of the human and political realities on the ground.
The Sykes-Picot agreement was leaked a few years after it was brokered. It enraged not only the people in the Middle East who had been promised self-determination but even experts in the British foreign office who had warned exactly against this sort of expedient and destabilizing imperialist border-drawing.
“All borders in the world are, in their own way, artificial,” says Joost Hiltermann, who runs the Middle East program for International Crisis Group and has written a book about the Kurds. He believes the instability in the Middle East today reflects pressure from groups like the Kurds and the Islamic State who feel the current state order doesn’t accommodate them. “Over time, sometimes a long time, the internal contradictions will explode the prevailing order,” Hiltermann said. “What the new order, or series of orders, will look like is anyone’s guess.”
Sykes-Picot has had a doubly poisonous legacy. First are the borders themselves, which have continually been contested by groups convinced they didn’t get a fair shake, from the Kurds and Palestinians to Shi’ite and Sunni desert tribes. Second is that they were dictated in secret by outsiders, forever enshrining the suspicion that schemers in Western capitals fiddle with the region’s maps, which of course, they did.
Kurds, who call themselves the world’s largest nation without a state, are planning an independence referendum this year. Some originally hoped to hold a vote on May 17, the Sykes-Picot centennial, to drive home the symbolic point that the old colonial order is dead.
It’s high time to take stock of the de facto new states operating in the Middle East and stop pretending that the Sykes-Picot borders are even in operation.
The Middle East is full of borders that don’t appear on official maps.
AGAINST THE ADVICE of many of their better informed colleagues, Sykes and Picot fashioned a new Middle East, literally drawing new nations out of whole cloth and truncating millennial aspirations for nationhood with a clumsy stroke through a map. Their map created the made-up new Kingdom of Jordan, which ended up displaced by the house of a twice-displaced monarch, the Sherif of Mecca, who had supported the British during the Great War and had originally been promised the throne of Syria. Wags of the day called the British approach to the state-building in the Middle East “everybody move over one.”
Lebanon was carved out of Syria. Mosul and Baghdad were cobbled into Iraq. Palestine was given to the British, who already had promised the territory to the Zionists. The biggest losers were the Kurds, a distinct ethnic and linguistic group who weren’t given a state at all. Today the Kurdish heartland stretches into corners of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
British historian James Barr wrote a lively chronicle of the diplomacy of the Sykes-Picot era called “A Line in the Sand,” which is still wildly popular in Beirut bookshops five years after its publication. Barr unearthed secret British foreign office memos that correctly anticipated most of the terrible spillover from the Sykes-Picot agreement, including prescient predictions of the violence and instability that would follow the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
It is because of this history that even today random maps scribbled on napkins or published on blogs drive Middle East conspiracy theorists into a tizzy. After the United States occupied Iraq, many experts in the region were convinced that there was an official plan to divide Iraq into separate Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish states. Comments in support of partition by long-retired US diplomat Peter Galbraith were cited as proof that a conspiracy was afoot. Similarly, after the Egyptian popular uprising in 2011, supporters of the deposed dictator believed they were actually the victim of an American-Israeli plot to cut up Egypt’s territory into smaller, more easily cowed mini-states.
It’s common to hear cosmopolitan analysts in the Middle East speak matter-of-factly about unknown, but in the common view, utterly plausible, secret plots to divide the region in the service of someone’s agenda: Iran, the United States, the Zionists, or some other culprit.
“The Sykes-Picot agreement was only revealed in 1917 after the Communists took power in Russia,” wrote Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi, head of a think tank, the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research. “So the fact that there are no current plans that have been publicly announced by certain powers to divide the region does not mean that such plans do not exist — perhaps the details will become evident at a later time.”
It’s a version of that old saw: “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.” There’s no arguing with the dirty facts of the secret map a century ago. It doesn’t help that Western powers have never stopped meddling even after the colonial era. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq are fresh in the region’s mind, as is the ongoing war in Syria with all its foreign sponsors and military advisers.
As a result, any chitchat about drawing new borders can instantly become a sensation. A map published by the Armed Forces Journal in the United States imagined what new borders would look like if they were redrawn by ethnic and sectarian group; it remains one of the publication’s top viewed articles even a decade later.
FOR ALL THE unwarranted conspiracy-mongering, however, a new Middle East is, in fact, taking shape — and it’s not the product of a map scribbled on a napkin by jolly Western agents (at least, not so far as we know!).
“This region, and Kurdistan in particular, was divided without regard to the will of its indigenous people, which in turn led to a hundred years of troubles, war, denial, and instability,” the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, said earlier this spring. Barzani has promised an independence referendum this year during the Sykes-Picot centennial. He presides over the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has functioned in most ways as an independent nation since the United States established a protectorate there in 1991 to shield Kurds from retribution by Saddam Hussein. Kurdistan has its own military and gas fields, but it still depends on the central government in Baghdad for revenue and trade.
Travelers who fly into Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, don’t need visas from the central government in Baghdad. Kids growing up there are often educated in Kurdish and might learn English as a second language before studying any Arabic. While Kurdish officials are still organizing their referendum, a few weeks before the Sykes-Picot anniversary they announced the next best sign of sovereignty in the digital age: an Internet domain, “.krd,” which went online the first week of April.
“The same way that Scotland, Catalonia, and Quebec, and other places have the right to express their opinions about their destiny, Kurdistan, too, has the right, and it’s non-negotiable,” Barzani said.
His statelet is one of many Middle Eastern de facto nations you can find in the world but not yet on an official map or the list of member states at the United Nations.
Palestine was accorded “nonmember observer state” status at the United Nations in 2012, and its flag now flies over the UN headquarters in New York. On the ground, however, geography is even more complicated. Parts of the West Bank are supposedly under control of the Palestinian authority, but the land crossings are all controlled by Israel. Gaza has functioned as an effective state since 2005, when Israel withdrew its settlements. Access to the Gaza Strip is controlled entirely by outsiders — by Israel in the north and Egypt to the south — but inside, Hamas holds sway over a de facto city-state.
Rojava, a Kurdish-controlled statelet in northern Syria, declared official autonomy last month. Because of its precarious location on a strip of land bordering Turkey, which resolutely opposes its existence, Rojava might seem unsustainable. But the Kurdish party that controls it has managed to woo support from both the United States and Russia, for complicated reasons having to do with the war in Syria.
The Sinai peninsula, popular with sunbathing and scuba-diving tourists, was briefly occupied by Israel after its 1967 war with Egypt. It returned to Egyptian sovereignty in 1982 but arguably never to its full control. Today, the Sinai is an unruly place, with powerful tribal leaders and vibrant Al Qaeda and Islamic State franchises.
Hezbollah, the Party of God, is the single most powerful movement in Lebanon. It has its independent military, ministers, and members of Parliament in the Lebanese government, and wide swaths of territory that everyone in Lebanon recognizes are under Hezbollah control. Hezbollah polices sensitive areas, like borders and military training areas, sometimes in tandem with national authorities, sometimes on its own. The movement sees no interest in making the arrangement more formal; power on the ground serves it better than any official designation.
One shorthand for figuring out the real borders is to ask who could protect you effectively if you were traveling in a certain area. If the answer is “no one,” you could be talking about an area of failed governance like Sinai, or a contested border zone like the front lines between the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian government.
If, on the other hand, the answer is some entity that’s not the official government, then you’re probably looking at one of the post-modern, post-Sykes-Picot regions that has emerged heedless of the rule-making of cartographers and international bureaucrats — like Hezbollah, the Islamic State, or Hamas in Gaza.
In fact, one of the most interesting developments a hundred years after Sykes-Picot is that many of the most dynamic, independent groups in the Middle East are accommodating their thirst for autonomy without any redrawing of official borders. The Kurds in Rojava are careful to describe their regional government as part of a federated Syria, and even the vociferous Barzani, in Iraqi Kurdistan, has made clear that even after a referendum he wouldn’t formally declare independence unless neighboring countries supported the move, which they are unlikely to do.
Hiltermann, who has followed the twists and turns in the Middle East for more than three decades, says it’s unwise to make predictions: “All we know is that what used to be will not return in exactly the same form. It might even look radically different: a brave new world.”
The maneuvering of groups who don’t fit neatly into the existing nation-states suggests that the map of the Middle East is already been redrawn. This is how sovereignty changes today: through human geography — or bulldozers — which changes not maps, but facts on the ground.
ISKENDERUN, Turkey — The militia commander, a barrel-bodied man who hulks over his soldiers and playfully hurls epithets, was beaming. It was as if getting run out of his home base by al Qaeda was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Col. Ahmed Saoud, head of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Division 13, knelt in the antechamber of an underground infirmary in the Turkish port city of Iskenderun. But his mind was very much still back home as he calmly dictated orders to a deputy in Syria.
“My sheikh, you will make sure that tomorrow’s demonstration was bigger than today’s. Each day we will make them bigger,” Saoud instructed Sheikh Khaled, who had just been released after three days of detention by the Nusra Front, Syria’s powerful al Qaeda affiliate.
The colonel listened to Sheikh Khaled’s complaints about the Nusra Front for barely a minute before silencing him with a profanity-laced blueprint to turn the tables on the extremist group. Saoud intends not only to return to Division 13’s former stronghold of Maarat al-Nu’man, a small city in northern Syria, but score a propaganda victory that will make up for the Free Syrian Army’s crippling military disadvantage against the Nusra Front.
“God willing we’ll be back in a week and those animals, those donkeys from al Qaeda, will never return,” he declared.
For the past two weeks, the small rebel-controlled town in Idlib province has become the central battleground in a pitched power struggle between al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army, a confederation of nationalist militias that draws support from Western governments. It all began when Nusra Front fighters shut down a nationalist protest on March 11 – an act that escalated into full-blown clashes with Division 13, which al Qaeda eventually forced out of the town.
While the military confrontation is over for now, Saoud’s supporters in Maarat al-Nu’man are harnessing their public support in defiance of the dominant Nusra Front. FSA supporters have organized escalating protests of the town’s men and women against al Qaeda, sparking such anger at the jihadist group’s abuses that Nusra was forced to withdraw, at least temporarily. A religious court is deciding when and if either side can return. The fight is less about territory and military strength, where the Nusra Front still has a clear upper hand, than it is about legitimacy, popularity, and propaganda.
The FSA is gambling that it can leverage the popular backlash against the Nusra Front that followed the clash in Maarat al-Nu’man to argue that a popular nationalist revolution survives. For supporters of Syria’s original non-violent nationalist uprising, the entire project of fixing Syria is at stake. If the ragged coalition of activists and nationalist rebels who cooperate under the brand of the Free Syrian Army collapses, they say, Syria will be left with a bitter choice between two murderous and sectarian alternatives: Bashar al-Assad’s regime or Islamic fundamentalists.
Jihadists may have fared better on the battlefield because of their bigger budgets and unscrupulous tactics, FSA commanders claim, but they have failed to win the hearts and minds of liberated Syria’s civilians.
“How can they build their emirate if the people don’t want them?” Saoud asked. “When they see people waving our flag, it makes them crazy. Now Nusra is revealing itself, and its popularity is collapsing.”
In interviews at rebel safe houses and command posts in southern Turkey, FSA commanders and activists from across northern Syria said they believe that the current lull in fighting might represent the nationalist opposition’s last solid chance to take back momentum from the jihadists, who for several years have been the dominant force in the armed struggle against the Syrian government. Jihadist groups are better financed, better armed, and have been consolidating their command structures for years, while the fragmented patchwork of FSA factions has lost ground.
Russia has scaled back its military operations after a six-month campaign, and most of the non-jihadist rebel groups have stuck to a cease-fire with the government, allowing both sides to regroup while half-hearted negotiations take place in Geneva. The Nusra Front is not party to the cease-fire.
The partial cease-fire has also allowed for the resurgence of non-violent protest in rebel-held areas in northern Syria. Free from the constant threat of barrel bombs, artillery shells, and airstrikes, Syrians returned to the street to chant against Assad. In several towns they also hoisted the banner of the nationalist revolution, a tricolor Syrian flag with three stars. The Nusra Front had banned the revolutionary flag in areas under its control, and its cadres in Maraat al-Nu’man appeared incensed on March 11 when a crowd of thousands, emboldened by the cease-fire, renewed anti-government protests in the town center with nationalist poetry, chants for unity, and the nationalist revolutionary standard.
Al Qaeda fighters on motorcycles drove into the center of the demonstration and seized the microphone from a notable local poet. The demonstrators fought back and recaptured the microphone. On March 12, the Nusra Front set up checkpoints around Maraat al-Nu’man and arrested members of Division 13, the most popular FSA group in the town. Nusra surrounded Division 13 bases and demanded they surrender their weapons cache, which included anti-tank weapons supplied as part of the CIA’s covert train-and-equip mission.
So far, nothing about the confrontation was unusual. Hard-core Islamists in the Nusra Front have long outgunned the more secular, nationalist, Western-supported rebels. According to FSA officers, Nusra routinely harvests up to half the weapons supplied by the Friends of Syria, a collection of countries opposed to Assad, and has regularly smashed FSA factions that were corrupt and inefficient — or that Nusra thought were getting too strong or too popular.
What was different this time was the FSA’s reaction.
“We will fight and die rather than surrender our weapons,” a Division 13 officer told the Nusra Front, according to an activist who was in the barracks during the fight and subsequently fled to Turkey.
Seven fighters from Division 13 died and at least a dozen were wounded, Saoud said, in a fight that lasted all night. At least a dozen more men from Division 13 were taken prisoner. Nusra eventually won — in large measure because none of the other FSA factions in the town were willing to help their allies. Most prominent among the nearby FSA divisions that sat on their hands was another U.S.-backed faction, Fursan al-Haq, led by another Syrian Army defector, Col. Fares Bayyoush.
“I guess they were afraid that if they helped us, they’d be next on Nusra’s list,” Saoud scoffed.
With their weapons gone and survivors detained by Nusra, the rest of Division 13 fled. Another al Qaeda rout of the so-called moderate opposition was apparently complete.
But on March 13, the day after Division 13 was ejected from Maarat al-Nu’man, hundreds of residents took the town’s streets waving the nationalist flag of the original Syrian republic. Women and children drove Nusra out of the posts it had occupied and set them on fire. Rather than shoot civilians, Nusra fighters left town. The next day, an even bigger demonstration swept Maraat al-Nu’man. Men can be seen on videos climbing on walls and tearing down Nusra flags.
In official statements posted on Facebook, as well as in tweets by supporters, the Nusra Front derided the FSA for agreeing to a cease-fire, which it calls a “distraction from the real target” — the fight against the Syrian government. Nusra also tried to blame Division 13 for starting the firefight, but quickly backed away from that claim when evidence to the contrary surfaced. The al Qaeda affiliate quickly agreed to submit to arbitration by an ad hoc sharia court, which has ordered Nusra to release prisoners and return the weapons it took, although weeks later negotiations over the implementation of the ruling are still underway.
Three days after it conquered Maraat al-Nu’man, the Nusra Front had withdrawn its main fighting force from the town under pressure from the sharia court, and began releasing its prisoners from Division 13.
“Jabhat al-Nusra asks of all its members to hold their breath and maintain the highest degrees of patience,” said a Nusra Front statement, which urged calm and tried to point out that Assad and his allies were the biggest beneficiaries of internecine strife among the rebels.
The struggle over this remote Syrian city will reverberate as far away as Geneva. The non-jihadist factions negotiating in Switzerland hope to form the nucleus of a post-Assad Syria. But in order to credibly represent the opposition, they’ll have to shift the balance of power on the ground, where the far stronger Nusra Front often dictates the course of events in rebel-held areas.
Civilian activists in Idlib province also said that they wanted to reclaim the initiative after being sidelined during years of grinding fighting.
“The larger the number of protesters, the more pressure it puts on the armed factions,” said Ammar Sabbouh, a member of the Maraat al-Nu’man local council, speaking by telephone from the town.
About 150 people have joined the daily protests since the clashes — enough, he said, to rattle Nusra because it shows locals no longer fear them.
“Before the truce, people were afraid of barrel bombs, shells, bombs,” Sabbouh said. “Demonstrations lasted 15 minutes. Since the truce, the peaceful side of the revolution has gained strength.”
But Sabbouh is well aware that driving the Nusra Front from rebel-held areas is not so simple as returning power to the people. He cautioned that all the armed factions, including Nusra, had popular followings. Maraat al-Nu’man is one of a handful of towns famous for its nationalist, sometimes even secular, revolutionaries — but even there, some powerful clans are evenly divided between al Qaeda and the FSA. Meanwhile, many other towns in Idlib province passionately support the Nusra Front or other jihadi factions.
There had been little public objection when the Nusra Front had wiped out other U.S.-backed FSA factions in Idlib, as the groups had engaged in widespread corruption. Division 13, however, has a reputation for being fair and relatively uncorrupt. Its leader, Saoud, is a defector from the Syrian Army who was detained by the Islamic State in 2014. He is popular with his fighters, which he claims number 1,700 men.
But seasoned observers of the Syrian war caution that even if public opinion runs against Nusra — which might not even be the case — the al Qaeda affiliate’s unified command and compelling ideology suggest it will continue to play a dominant role.
“Nusra commands deep support,” said one Western official who meets regularly with emissaries of Syrian rebel factions, and who believes that Islamists from less extreme factions will eventually shift allegiance to Nusra. “They’re not going away anytime soon.”
It’s notable that Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful, nationalist-leaning jihadi group, has taken the FSA’s side in the latest dispute with Nusra. After the Nusra Front clashed with protesters, Ahrar al-Sham leaders tweeted that Syrians had the right to protest and carry flags of their choice. Many view Ahrar al-Sham, which supported the cease-fire, as a kingmaker group, with jihadist credibility but aspirations for national Syrian leadership.
Critics inside northern Syria say that the Nusra Front initially masked its intentions, but that over the last year and a half, residents in Idlib province have realized that al Qaeda is just as repressive as the Islamic State or the Syrian government.
The Jabhat al-Nusra Violations group sprung up in Idlib a year ago to track the Nusra Front’s use of kidnapping, torture, and child soldiers. Its founder, who lives in Turkey because he said he is wanted by Nusra, believes that the jihadists will ultimately alienate even conservative and religious Syrians.
“The more people learn about Nusra, the more they will reject them,” he said.
“I have a strategy to set all Syria on fire against the extremists in Nusra, ISIS, and the regime,” Saoud said. “The demonstrations will teach other leaders how to break the fear of al Qaeda. The checkpoint of fear is being shattered.”