As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Washington this week, he will prod the White House to increase its support for the Syrian opposition and will likely encourage President Barack Obama to consider enforcing a no-fly zone. The powerful prime minister has been a forceful advocate for multi-lateral intervention in Syria, arguing that the international community has a collective responsibility to help oust President Bashar al-Assad and bring the conflict to an end.
Erdogan's request will almost certainly take on a more urgent tone after tragic bombings in Reyhanli -- a refugee filled town on the Syrian border -- killed nearly 50 people. Despite Erdogan's close relationship with Obama, Turkey's requests are not likely to gain much traction with the White House. And, in fact, the meeting is likely to focus more on U.S. requests of Turkey, rather than the other way around.
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In the wake of reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used sarin, a chemical weapon, it appears that U.S. President Barack Obama is on the brink of providing the Syrian opposition with lethal weapons. But it certainly does not seem that the Obama administration pursued the full range of nonlethal options available, particularly those involving the international community. Here's an idea: To affect meaningful and decisive change in Syria, which is suffering from a humanitarian catastrophe, the international community should use all available diplomatic and economic leverage to choke off the arms, resources, and money flowing to the regime.
A new Human Rights First report reveals that at least a dozen countries -- including Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Angola, Georgia, Lebanon, Cyprus, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates -- are continuing to provide the Assad regime with weapons, fuel, military technology, and access to financial markets. The paper provides both a unique overview of Assad's third-party supporters and a roadmap the U.S. government can follow to crack down on them. The U.S. government should use diplomacy to try to influence the countries providing these resources as well as the countries allowing these resources to pass through their jurisdiction. In addition, the U.S. Treasury should use existing authority under the Syria sanctions regime to designate those entities continuing to support the Assad regime and block them from the U.S. marketplace.
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In the fall of 2012, three mothers, along with their infant children, begin serving one-to-two-year prison terms in Iran. Their crime? Being Baha'is in the birthplace of their faith. In February 2012, a man is jailed without charge in Saudi Arabia. Why? According to authorities, for his own safety because he allegedly "disturbed the public order" by tweeting comments deemed to insult the religious feelings of others. In December 2012, an atheist blogger is sentenced to three years in prison in Egypt. His offense? Posting online content that allegedly "insulted God and cast doubt on the books of the Abrahamic religions."
These are just some of the many examples of the contempt that governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) often exhibit toward freedom of religion or belief. Since the onset of the Arab Awakening in early 2011, religious freedom conditions have not improved, but declined. While larger hopes for justice and democracy are experiencing convulsive birth pangs, majority and minority religious believers alike face increasing government repression in many MENA countries; sectarian violence is on the upswing; and violent religious extremism is fueling regional instability.
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King Abdullah II spent most of last week in Washington, D.C., where he tried to shore up U.S. support for Jordan by meeting with business leaders (pitching Jordan for foreign investment), civil society organizations (including American Arab, Muslim, and Jewish organizations), congressional leaders, the vice president, and finally, with President Barack Obama at the White House. Yet upon his return to Jordan, the king was met with a new statement of domestic opposition, signed by almost a thousand opposition figures, railing against a multitude of regime policies, both foreign and domestic. Having just returned from a seemingly successful visit to the United States, this is probably not the welcome that the king was hoping for.
Jordanian officials used to joke that Jordanian foreign policy could best be explained by noting that Jordan existed "between Iraq and a hard place." That old English-language pun may not have been riotously funny in the past, but in the present it no longer even comes close to explaining the extent of external pressures on the kingdom. The economy remains disastrous. The reform process remains incomplete and contested. And the Syrian civil war edges ever closer to Jordan, threatening to drag the kingdom into a conflict that it is desperately trying to avoid.
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The bloody struggle playing out in Syria has taken on increasingly sectarian tones, with dangerous implications for the future of this important country and the region. Protests originally focused on governance, political rights, and human freedoms. President Bashar al-Assad and his regime responded with violence, torture, and abuse, labeling opponents as "terrorists" and emphasizing sectarian differences. Two plus years into this increasingly protracted struggle, Assad's actions have helped create what he feared -- armed anti-government elements seeking his overthrow, with violent foreign religious extremists importing their dangerous worldview and political agenda.
Considering the diverse set of actors fighting the Assad regime, there will be another war for control of Syria once he leaves the scene. It will pit onetime rebel allies against each other, with alignments along sectarian lines or divides over secular versus religious governance. These cleavages are already starting to show, such as with the recent announcement by al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra of the establishment of an Islamic State in Syria.
Therefore, for the future of Syria, the fight after the fight may be as important as the first.
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The growing reports of increased U.S. support for the armed opposition in Syria with the training of Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias in Jordan and the facilitating of arms shipments into the country through Turkey mark an increase in overall U.S. assistance over two years into the conflict. While such actions are tempting in efforts to bring an end to Syria's deepening civil war, a military solution for either side has not been achievable these past two years. What is needed, instead, is to combine military assistance with a coordinated strategy of capacity building within the opposition, which can then have measurable results and reinforce international efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.
A better-trained, organized opposition that is able to make political and military gains could change not only the situation on the ground, but also the perception of the crisis in Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. Based on our conversations with former senior members of the Assad regime and individuals in contact with the regime presently, Assad is still confident that he can manage to suppress the uprisings and bring the opposition to the table to negotiate on his terms.
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After nearly three decades of bloody struggle with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey might finally be entering a post-conflict era. On Wednesday, the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence on Imrali Island since 1999, called for an immediate cease-fire and for thousands of his fighters to withdraw from Turkish territory. The call followed a round of talks that began in October 2012 between Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and Ocalan to convince the PKK fighters to lay down their arms and withdraw from Turkish soil. On Ocalan's counsel and in a gesture of good will, the PKK released eight Turkish soldiers and civil servants last week that had been abducted almost two years ago.
Ocalan's call could mark the first step in ending one of the world's longest running insurgencies. If it were to succeed, it would also favorably impact Turkey's democratization process, as well as possibly change the course of the Syrian uprising.
Looking at the past 10 years of Iraq's history through the lens of displacement reveals a complex -- and sobering -- reality. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, humanitarian agencies prepared for a massive outpouring of Iraqi refugees. But this didn't happen. Instead a much more dynamic and complex form of displacement occurred. First, some 500,000 Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had been displaced by the Saddam Hussein regime returned to their places of origin. Then, in the 2003 to 2006 period, more than a million Iraqis were displaced as sectarian militias battled for control of specific neighborhoods. In February 2006, the bombing of the Al-Askaria Mosque and its violent aftermath ratcheted the numbers of IDPs up to a staggering 2.7 million. In a period of about a year, five percent of Iraq's total population fled their homes and settled elsewhere in Iraq while an additional 2 million or so fled the country entirely. It is important to underscore that this displacement was not just a by-product of the conflict, but rather the result of deliberate policies of sectarian cleansing by armed militias.
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As the United States and its allies continue to debate intervention in Syria, the example of NATO's air campaign in Libya is frequently marshaled -- often carelessly. Most arguments against drawing unwarranted analogies cite the size of the Syrian military, the robustness of its air defenses compared to Libya's, as well as obvious differences in the countries' sectarian makeup and topography. But no one has bothered to ask Libya's revolutionary fighters and their commanders what they thought of the NATO air campaign and how it affected their strategy, tactics, and morale on the battlefield.
In March and July of 2012, I traveled to Libya to conduct over two dozen interviews with anti-Qaddafi commanders who fought on the war's four main fronts: the Nafusa mountains, Tripoli, Misrata, and Benghazi. The results are surprising, with important implications for current deliberations on Syria. Nowhere is this more evident than in Misrata, the central coastal city that was the location of the Libyan war's most pivotal battle. Anti-Assad forces in Syria have long boasted of making Aleppo their Benghazi -- a haven from which to topple the regime in Damascus. But perhaps a closer analogy is Misrata where, after months of grinding, urban combat, Libyan revolutionaries pushed out Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops and paved the way for the liberation of Tripoli. Precision airpower, combined with the presence of foreign ground advisors working alongside the city's defenders, helped in this crucial battle, but in ways that were dependent on a number of other factors -- all with important implications for Syria.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images; Misrata Military Council
Kofi Annan resigned as the United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria after less than sixth months on the job. Lakhdar Brahimi has been the envoy for less than five. He is unlikely to care if he holds the post for more or less time than his predecessor. Brahimi has admitted that he thinks about resigning daily. He has had a foul few weeks, culminating in a public clash of wills with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. But while his chances of orchestrating a peace deal are now vanishingly small, he should not quit quite yet.
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Since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011, the Assad regime has transformed into a ruthless militia fighting a desperate battle against the Syrian people. The regime hasn't just murdered thousands of Syrians, but also wasted their wealth and, most significantly, destroyed the very fabric of Syrian society. The longer Assad stays in power, the harder and more painful the transitional period will be. Before it is too late, Syrians must form, and the international community must support, a Syrian transitional government based on liberated Syrian soil.
The actions of the Syrian government have forced the country into a hateful sectarian conflict and a horrifying civil war. The regime (or militia) has repeatedly violated the Geneva conventions and failed to follow any rules of war. For instance, live bullets have claimed the lives of some of Syria's finest young non-violent activists, such as Ghayth Matar, Tamer al-Sharey, and Hamzeh al-Khatib. Additionally, the regime has engaged in the monstrous and inhuman practice of targeting hospitals and bread lines. However, the Syrian people have steadfastly endured this horrible struggle for almost two years not only to protect their movement and determination, but also, and more importantly, to preserve their solidarity against a policy whose sole purpose is to break them apart.
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Many analyses have been made about Iran's strategic and geopolitical role in the Syrian regime, but not enough attention has been paid to the crucial and changing economic relations between the two countries. By analyzing Iran-Syria relations through this prism, one can shed light on the more nuanced, unconventional, and complicated aspects of Iran's role in Syria.
Iran has historically invested a considerable amount of money, resources, skilled forces, and labor in Syria. These investments were ratcheted up, particularly, in the last few years before uprisings began erupting in March 2011 across Syria. Although large sums of money and resources were allocated to investments in Syrian transportation and infrastructure, Iranian and Syrian economic ties are not limited to these spheres. A few months before the popular uprisings were ignited, Iranian authorities signed a $10 billion natural gas agreement with Syria and Iraq for the construction of gas pipeline that would start in Iran, run through Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean, and reach several Western countries. According to the agreement, Iraq and Syria would receive a specified amount of cubic meters of natural gas per day. This proposal was endorsed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who also supported the allocation of $5.8 billion in aid to Syria by Iran's Center for Strategic Research (CSR), which concentrates on the Islamic Republic of Iran's strategies in six different arenas including Foreign Policy Research, Middle East and Persian Gulf research, and International political economy research.
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The worsening violence and repression in Syria has left many analysts and policymakers in the United States and other western countries scrambling to think of ways our governments could help end the bloodshed and support those seeking to dislodge the Assad regime. The desperate desire to "do something" has led a growing number of people to advocate for increased military aid to armed insurgents or even direct military intervention, as the French government has said it will consider doing unilaterally.
While understandable, to support the armed opposition would likely exacerbate the Syrian people's suffering and appear to validate the tragic miscalculation by parts of the Syrian opposition to supplant their bold and impressive nonviolent civil insurrection with an armed insurgency.
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The view that the civil war in Syria is entering into a new phase, perhaps its final one, is rapidly gaining ground. Having successfully resisting the Assad regime's onslaught, the rebels have improved their military efficacy. They have seized significant military targets, have made significant progress toward centralizing their command structure, and are consolidating their stronghold over substantial parts of the country. More and better weapons are coming their way, and the war appears poised to come to Damascus, for what could shape up into the conflict's most decisive battle. But are we really witnessing the beginning of the end? Or is this just another phase in what may prove to be an endless Afghan-style quagmire?
To answer this question, we should look to Libya rather than Afghanistan. NATO's intervention, following U.N. Resolution 1973, made all the difference in this conflict: by strengthening the rebels' hand and severely weakening Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces, it turned military defeat into rapid victory, against all prognostications of protracted war. However, to understand how aerial bombing could make such a tremendous difference in Libya, especially when massive U.S. firepower has failed to turn the war in Afghanistan, we must probe deeper.
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Despite the estimated 40,000 civilian deaths in the Syrian conflict, the United States has shown little appetite for a Libya-style intervention, this time without United Nations Security Council approval. The Obama administration has been candid, however, about what might change its mind. In August, President Barack Obama first asserted that Syria's use, or movement, of chemical or biological weapons (CBW) would be a "red line" that would result in "enormous consequences." The British and French quickly followed suit. Just this week, the significance of these red lines was reiterated in view of intelligence reports that the Assad regime is weaponizing Sarin nerve gas.
The Obama administration has been silent about its rationales for these red lines. But reasons matter. As with any use of force in international relations, the legitimacy of an intervention in Syria would hinge on the strength of its moral and legal justifications. Are the Obama administration's red lines primarily designed to protect civilians? Or, are they intended to warn President Bashar al-Assad not to let CBW fall into the hands of terrorists? As it stands, the motivations for the red lines are unclear. Ironically, however, the Obama administration risks resurrecting the much-maligned Bush Doctrine of preemptive self-defense.
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The February 14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will always be remembered as a seminal event that changed the course of Lebanon's history. It expelled Syrian troops from Lebanon after occupying the country for three decades and freed Beirut from the shackles of Damascus. While the killing of Lebanese intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan last Friday is not likely to create the political tsunami that Hariri's murder did seven years ago, it certainly has the potential to cause some powerful shocks to an already shaky Lebanese system. Specifically, Hassan's assassination could lead to the collapse of the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the explosion of Sunni-Shiite tensions, the violent mobilization of Lebanon's Salafists, and if things snowball, the country's return to civil war. Nobody can speak with confidence to the direction Lebanon will go following this massive security incident but all bets are that things in Lebanon will get much worse before they get any better.
The boy wears a white headband, Rambo-style, and an undershirt that shows off his muscled arms. He says he's 17, and looks it. He should be hanging out on a corner in some Syrian village, sneaking smiles at the passing girls, not standing amid the swirling dust of a refugee camp boasting about his time as a fighter.
"I was with the Free Army, and I brought my family here," he says -- to Jordan, to the Zaatari camp, near the northern city of Mafraq. "I stayed for one week, then went back to Syria. The bad situation had got worse, and people were being slaughtered with knives. The people I was working with had fled to Lejja [in the mountains, to regroup].... I saw that there was nothing for me to do there, and so I came back."
"Most of the young people here, they are with the Free Army, and there are no weapons for them, no weapons at all."
The boy's conversation follows a script that has become quickly familiar: He is asked about what brought him here, and answers with a plea for weapons. He wants anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, and foreign troops enforcing a no-fly zone over his home in southern Syria.
The United States must shift the paradigm on Syria. Escalating tensions between Syria and Turkey are the latest indicator that Syria's crisis is spiraling out of control. With Russia now pulled into the fray, the conflict has the potential to escalate significantly. Horrific violence inside Syria has dramatically increased civilian death tolls and sparked an exponential rise in refugee flows. The current policy debate largely focuses on the relative merits of providing (directly or indirectly) more sophisticated weapons to the opposition versus the establishment of a protected safe zone in northern Syria. Yet, these tactical military interventions carry significant downside risks. The deepening crisis between Syria and Turkey amid Syria's worsening civil conflict presents an important opportunity for U.S. leadership and diplomacy. Washington should seize on these latest developments to build a coalition for bringing an end to the violence and establishing a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Further militarization of the Syrian conflict would exacerbate an already volatile situation on the ground, deepening and protracting Syria's sectarian civil war. Far from providing relief for innocent civilians, fueling the conflict with more arms risks further endangering civilians. The armed opposition's inability to unify and its continued radicalization as well as enduring divisions between key patrons, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, underscore the inherent risks of this option. Differences among Syria's various armed opposition groups, not to mention between Arabs and Kurds, could erupt into open hostilities in Syria's mounting chaos. Meanwhile, jihadist elements, while still a distinct minority, appear to be gaining influence.
As pressure increases on western governments to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria, "non-lethal" assistance has become the promise of the hour. The term is ubiquitous, cropping up in White House press briefings and the European Union's arms embargo on Syria.
Yet despite the pervasive nature of the term, it does not yet have a widely accepted legal definition. Broadly speaking, it is used to describe equipment and intelligence that cannot be directly used to kill. This can encompass anything from helmets and body armor to more facilitative assistance such as encrypted radios and satellite imagery. In practice, the lines between non-lethal equipment and its lethal counterparts are more blurred. In fact, both are required for a soldier to maximize the use of his weapon. As Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, points out, "a guy with a helmet and a radio is more likely to use his gun effectively because his protection increases his survivability and his radio [improves] his targeting through better communication."
The death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials in Libya last Wednesday should serve to draw much-needed attention to an increasingly untenable contradiction in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Even while it seeks to recover from this latest attack by Islamic radicals, the United States continues to support or tolerate the mobilization of adherents of that very same ideology elsewhere in the region, most clearly in Syria and in Bahrain. There, U.S. policymakers should expect equally frightening results.
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was carried out by suspected members of Ansar al-Sharia, or Partisans of Islamic Law, a group adhering to the same Salafi (or Wahhabi) religious interpretation more commonly associated with Saudi Arabia. And while the popular anti-American protests that have continued to spread across the region cannot be painted with a single brushstroke, and doubtless have roots in local political grievances, still one feature they share is the conspicuous presence -- and organizational power -- of Sunni Islamists.
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At the end of August, in my hometown of Daraya, regime forces perpetrated the worst massacre of Syria's 18-month conflict. Shell-shocked residents have discovered hundreds dead -- a result of a concerted effort by the Assad regime to target and intimidate civilians with airpower, artillery, and house-to-house raids. Local activists reported finding 156 bodies in the Abu Suleiman Darani Mosque, one of the oldest and most famous mosques in Daraya. Hundreds more bodies were discovered strewn in back alleys and in the basements of houses -- nearly all seemingly executed. Among the dead was my cousin Mohamad Moustafa Al-Abaar. On August 24, he was briefly detained by security forces but then hours later disappeared. Two days later, his body was found along with seven others in the basement of an abandoned building.
As international attention remains focused on the fighting in Syria, Turkey's military has been fighting lethal battles on its southern border with the Kurdistan's Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody war against Turkey for almost three decades. Just last week, nine people were killed when a car packed with explosives blew up close to a police station in Gaziantep, a city around 30 miles from the Syrian border. In response, the National Security Council (MGK) convened yesterday to discuss the recent PKK attacks and issued a statement vowing to avert the risks to its national security emanating from the violence in Syria. While the government has come under increased criticism for its Kurdish policy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is placing the blame on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ankara suspects the PKK is exploiting the chaos in Syria, and that Assad is supplying it with arms in retaliation for Turkey's support for the Syrian opposition.
The spike in the PKK's terrorist activity in Turkey comes amid mounting concerns in Ankara that the PKK and its affiliates are gaining ground in Turkey's southern neighbor. Particularly alarming was the capture of several towns along the Turkish border by the PKK's Syrian offshoot, the Party of Unity and Democracy (PYD). Turkey watched nervously as Kurdish groups took control of the towns after the withdrawal of Assad forces and hoisted the Kurdish flag over Syrian government buildings, along with posters of the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Armed members of the Meqdad family, a powerful Shiite Muslim clan from the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, announced on Wednesday that they had kidnapped at least 40 Syrians and a Turkish national, sparking a wave of similar kidnappings and riots across Lebanon. Although the Meqdads claimed that the Syrians they kidnapped were members of the Free Syrian Army, a spokesman for the FSA denied this, saying that the hostages were ordinary Syrians who had fled to Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria.
In videos aired on Lebanese television and rebroadcast on Al Jazeera English, masked gunmen from the Meqdad family stated that they had taken the hostages in retaliation for the capture of one of their relative, Hassan al-Meqdad, in Syria by a group claiming to be members of the Free Syrian Army. The Saudi-owned television station Al-Arabiya broadcast a video on Wednesday of a bruised Meqdad confessing that he was a Hezbollah sniper sent to Syria to aid the Assad regime.
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Abu Baraa knew it was time to leave Syria in June 2011 when state security asked him to become an informant against the revolution. To refuse that offer, he reasonably feared, would invite imprisonment and torture if not certain death. Abandoning his home in the suburbs of Damascus, the site of the harshest initial fighting, he shuttled his wife, Um Baraa, and their two children onto a plane to Egypt and joined them there after a month in hiding.
Days later in Cairo, the family attended an anti-Assad demonstration at the Syrian embassy. "It was the first time we felt comfortable enough to participate," said Um Baraa. "I wanted our chants to reach Syria." More than a year later, the fighting back home persists while she and her family continue to wait in Egypt for the day when they can return safely to a free Syria.
During the last 18 months, Syria's leadership class has made almost every mistake in the book. The regime has no respect for or indeed understanding of basic governing concepts except those defined by the use of force. Its heavy hand transformed disparate, limited, local acts of disobedience energized by economic discontent into a national, sectarian revolt against the ruling Ba'ath Party and increasingly against the minority Alawite community at the Party's center. In this context, the regime's efforts at political reform, while unprecedented, have been overwhelmed by an exploding but still manageable challenge to the regime itself, which now must reap the fruits of its own grievous shortcomings.
The shortcomings of the regime have been more than matched by those defining the opposition. Syria's political class has failed to cast off the burdens of its own history. The serial coups of the 40s and 50s and 60s highlighted the inability of Syria's political leadership to rule effectively. Today's "opposition" -- a description that suggests a clarity and unity of purpose that is all but entirely absent -- remains a factionalized, personality-driven, almost apolitical assembly of aspiring Peróns operating outside the growing circle of conflict in the country itself. They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing of their sorry history.
Motivated by President Bashar al-Assad's terrible murder of civilians and (or) the strategic opportunity to undermine Iran's staunchest Arab ally, both conservative and liberal voices in the United States now favor military intervention in Syria. There is indeed a striking synergy between the United States' strategic and humanitarian goals in Syria, either of which could potentially motivate military action. But good intentions do not make good policy.
Deposing Assad, weakening Iran, and stopping government-sanctioned murder are all laudable objectives worthy of U.S. investment, but the proposition of using military force to achieve those goals must be weighed against the risks and costs of doing so. And perhaps the singular lesson of the last decade of foreign policy is that the unintended consequences of well-intentioned military action can be massive and outweigh the achievements of noble policy choices. The wisdom and justice of U.S. foreign policy decisions is a function of the consequences they produce, not the hopeful intentions with which they are initiated.
There are three basic problems with the proposals for military intervention in Syria.
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Is it time for Kofi Annan to declare that his bid to resolve the Syrian crisis has failed? A growing number of Western diplomats argue privately that he should. U.S. officials have stated publicly that Annan's peace plan "is failing," and the Saudi foreign minister has said confidence in his efforts is "rapidly falling." Syrian security forces continue to target dissidents, rebel forces remain active, and there have been attacks on convoys carrying U.N. monitors -- reinforcing the case that Annan should admit defeat.
The former U.N. Secretary-General has made it clear that he knows his mission is close to failure. But it's very difficult for him to call the whole thing off. While violence has continued in Syria at what Annan calls "unacceptable" levels, the death-rate has generally been lower than prior to the "ceasefire" he engineered in April. But whoever is attacking the U.N. observers probably wants to foment a full-scale war, and fighting appears not only to be on the rise again but also to be spreading into Lebanon.
Virtually nobody took this week's Syrian elections seriously. It is easy to understand the nearly universal skepticism about balloting in the midst of ongoing killing in a manifestly undemocratic regime. Even when regimes have the best intentions, elections held in such difficult circumstances are rarely credible -- and few believe that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has the best intentions. A U.S. State Department spokesman declared that the balloting "bordered on the ludicrous."
But this misses the point. There is a very real political logic behind the conducting of these elections -- one familiar to decades of such elections under Arab authoritarian regimes, and one which points to the coming terrain of the unfolding political struggle in Syria. The significance of the seemingly insignificant elections lies in the crucial battle over expectations about the regime's future. Put simply, the elections are meant to signal that the regime is strong, and its downfall unthinkable. Even though results have not yet been announced, the elections demonstrate that the regime is in control, both of the process and the outcomes, and the political game must be played on their terms.
It's easy to hate Bashar al-Assad, the crypto-modernizer-turned bloody tyrant. What is there to commend about a regime that kills thousands of its own? How could it not be fair to demonize a president who, in his first interview after coming to power after his father's death in 2000, questioned the very notion of a civil society in Syria? Yet however good righteous indignation may feel, it makes for bad policy.
When U.S. President Barack Obama called for Egypt's octogenarian president Hosni Mubarak to step aside last year, he could be confident that by doing so he was breathing new life into the "deep state" -- ruled by the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). U.S. policy was not abetting revolution in Egypt so much as short-circuiting it, even if we tried to convince ourselves otherwise. And our policy was consistent with the often inchoate sensibilities of Egypt's majority. Remember the popular refrain: "The Army and the People are One!" In that case, U.S. policy was both right and smart.
On April 17, 2012, M. Cherif Bassiouni, international Arab legal expert and Chairman of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry joined Middle East Channel editor Marc Lynch for a short conversation at George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies. Among the topics covered: Bahrain's response to the BICI recommendations, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's immunity deal, a war crimes tribunal for Syria...and why Muammar al-Qaddafi's sex addiction will make it difficult to convict Saif al-Islam.
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