Your humble blogger has been traveling a lot, so it was only this a.m. that I got around to reading Marc Lynch's blog post on "How Syria Ruined the Arab Spring." It's pretty gripping stuff:
[T]he Syrian nightmare has destroyed the spirit of fun, hope, and positive change of the early Arab uprisings. The promise of the Arab Spring has given way to Syria's highly visible and protracted violence, divisive identity politics, focus on international intervention, crushing of expectations, fragmentation of the media landscape, state failure, and strategic proxy warfare.
Now, Marc knows way more than I do about the region and has literally written the book on understanding the Arab Spring. His points about the changing media landscape in the region are fascinating. But if I could go all blogger for a second, can I point out the ways in which I think there's some gross exaggerating going on in this post?
First of all, let's be clear that Syria was hardly the only Middle Eastern country to experience a violent blowback to the uprisings. Iran cracked down almost immediately after the first protest broke out in early 2011 -- indeed, it cracked down so effectively that after that January the country disappeared from the Arab Spring narrative.
Now, one could argue that Iran is not an Arab country, so what happens in Persia stays in Persia and doesn't taint the Arab Spring. Bahrain certainly is Arab, however, and there was a pretty brutal crackdown there as well. It was far less bloody than in Syria, but it was a crackdown nonetheless and a significant part of the counter-revolutionary trend that Lynch highlights. And what happened in Bahrain was merely the most egregious example of repressive acts that occurred across the Persian Gulf.
Second, Lynch argues that "the Syrian war has also created an opening for al Qaeda and jihadist trends, which earlier Arab uprisings did not." This is likely true with respect to Tunisia and Egypt ... but it is less true with respect to Libya. And if the counterfactual is a world in which Syria doesn't descend into civil war, one could envision a scenario where al Qaeda elements simply decided to target the next-weakest state in the region instead. That likely would have simply meant a larger AQ presence in Libya.
Third, Lynch notes that Syria transformed the media narrative from one of spontaneous revolutions to one of bloody internecine warfare, tarnishing the image of the Arab Spring. It's true that war tends to drown out other forms of news, but I wonder if the absence of a Syrian conflict would have led to such a great change in news coverage. Absent Syria, the leading narrative in the region would likely be the myriad ways in which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has morphed into the very Arab dictator that he replaced. And I'm not sure that narrative would be any more upbeat.
I suspect that the proxy warfare and media transformation are likely Syria-specific, so I don't want to say that I completely disagree with my FP colleague. Still, the Arab Spring narrative was never quite so pristine as it seems now, and there are plenty of other ways the narrative would have been sullied absent Syria.
Am I missing anything ... asked the IR generalist prepared to be smacked down by the better-informed area expert?
The AP breathlessly reports that Punxatawney Phil saw his shadow today, which means another six weeks of winter. Based on recent data, I'm wondering if Syria's Bashar al-Assad can say the same thing.
Earlier this week the U.S. intelligence heads testified on Syria, and offered some surprising assessments:
Syrian President Bashar al Assad will not be able to maintain his grip on power in the wake of a wave of opposition that has dragged on for almost a year, America’s top intelligence officials told Congress today.
“I personally believe it’s a question of time before Assad falls,” James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. CIA Director David Petraeus added, “I generally subscribe to that as well.”
Clapper said “it could be a long time” before the Assad regime falls because of “the protraction of these demonstrations” and a Syrian opposition that remains fragmented. Despite that, Clapper said “I do not see how long he can sustain his rule of Syria.”
Hey, remember how, a year ago, Clapper got into trouble for being honest about the state of affairs in Libya despite his honesty being a political inconvenience? This is precisely why I find his testimony so credible.
Recent facts on the ground buttress Clapper's assessment -- as does the Financial Times' David Gardner's reportage, which is chock-full of interesting facts about the Assad regime's constrained ability to repress:
The [Assad] regime believed it could crush the uprising, which began in mid-March after revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, by the end of April and then in the summer Ramadan Offensive. It failed.
These operations revealed its reliance on two dependable units -- the 4th Armoured Division and the Republican Guard, made up of Alawites, the heterodox Shia minority that forms the backbone of the regime, and commanded by Mr Assad’s volatile younger brother, Maher. Whenever the Assads deployed units with a rank-and-file reflecting Syria’s 70 per cent Sunni majority -- as they had to if their offensives were to cover more than the hot spots of the moment -- defections ensued.
Even more interesting is Gardner's take on the evolving Russian position:
Russian diplomats…despite their rhetoric, have been talking to Syrian opposition figures and, according to the latter, carefully considering the Arab League proposals. As a veteran U.S. diplomat puts it, “there is a squishiness to where they [the Russians] are now”.
Russia does have a commercial interest in Syria, and arms the regime but the value of this depends on whether it will get paid, by a government running out of cash. It is only six years since Moscow had to write off more than $10bn in unpaid Syrian debts from the Soviet era.
Its real interest is in retaining its base facilities at the port of Tartus, its last naval asset in the Mediterranean. For that it will eventually need to reach an understanding with Syria’s future, not hold on to its past. Tartus is a long-term strategic asset. The Assads are no longer a long-term proposition.
This is new and interesting information, and does appear to track multiple reports that the negotiations in Turtle Bay will lead to an actual Security Council resolution on Syria. If Russia cuts a deal with the opposition and removes its veto from multilateral action, how long can Assad hold out?
What do you think? Will Assad be out of power in Syria inside of six weeks or not?
The theme of Western decline was still running through my head as I perused the New York Times website this AM. In his Damascus dispatch today, Neil MacFarquhar dutifully details the Syrian government's position on the cause of the sustained unpleasantness in the country:
Rather than responding to the motivations and demands behind the antigovernment uprising, opponents and political analysts say, the government has stubbornly clung to the narrative that it is besieged by a foreign plot....
Senior government officials — including Mr. Assad — and their supporters reel off a strikingly uniform explanation for the uprisings, blaming foreign agents and denying official responsibility for the violence.
“Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa,” Mr. Assad said in an interview with ABC News broadcast on Wednesday. In the interview, Mr. Assad denied ordering a crackdown. “We don’t kill our people,” he said. “No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.”
Virtually no one in the Syrian government links the uprisings to the sentiment inspiring revolutions across the Arab world, to a public fed up with the status quo. Instead, they say the United States and Israel, allied with certain quisling Arab governments, are plotting to destroy Syria, to silence its lone, independent Arab voice and to weaken its regional ally, Iran. To achieve this aim, they are arming and financing Muslim fundamentalist mercenaries who enter Syria from abroad, Syrian officials say.
“Syria is one of the last secular regimes in the Arab world, and they are targeting Syria,” said Buthaina Shaaban, a presidential political and media adviser, warning that the West would rue the day that it enabled Islamist regimes.
And then I read David Herszenhorn's update on Vladimir Putin's thinking on the causes behind Russian protests earlier this week:
With opposition groups still furious over parliamentary elections that international observers said were marred by cheating, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of instigating protests by baselessly criticizing the vote as “dishonest and unfair” and he warned that Russia needed to protect against “interference” by foreign governments in its internal affairs.
“I looked at the first reaction of our U.S. partners,” Mr. Putin said in remarks to political allies. “The first thing that the secretary of state did was say that they were not honest and not fair, but she had not even yet received the material from the observers.”
“She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” Mr. Putin continued. “They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work.”
Mr. Putin’s assertions of foreign meddling and his vow to protect Russian “sovereignty” came after three days in which the Russian authorities have moved forcefully to tamp down on efforts to protest the elections, arresting hundreds of demonstrators and deploying legions of pro-Kremlin young people in Moscow to occupy public squares and to chant, beat drums and drown out the opposition.
Wow, I had no idea that the United States was this powerful!! Hillary Clinton is apparently capable of getting thousands of Russians in the streets with just a few sentences.
Now clearly, actual American influence over events in Russia and Syria is pretty limited. Still, if the perception of power is a form of power in and of itself, I wonder if the Secretary of State -- perhaps after consuming too much egg nog at the State Department holiday reception -- would be tempted to give the following address to the diplomatic press corps:
I'd like to take this oppportunity today to admit that the United States, is, in fact, responsible for the nine-month uprising in Syria and the recent unrest in Russia. Oh, hell, who am I kidding -- we're responsible for the entire Arab Spring! It's true, the whole thing started about a year ago, at the Policy Planning Staff's Secret Santa party. One of them said, "hey, you know what would really advance American interests in the Middle East? If we destabilized secular authoritarian despots and empowered Islamist parties across the region! Those parties would really be more likely to back American policies in the region! Oh, and we should start with Egypt too, because of their peace treaty with Israel."
That initiative was sooooo successful that, again, my Foreign Service Officers came up with the brilliant concept of instigating the Occupy Wall Street movement, so we could demonstrate a template for how protests should naturally germinate in other countries. Did you like how some of the policy forces overreacted to those movements? Yeah, that was the State Department's idea too. We were hoping to encourage authoritarian leaders to overreact and crack down -- because without our inspiration, they would never have brutally repressed on their own.
Now, some of you might wonder, "if the United States was really this all powerful, why not target countries that pose even bigger security concerns, like Iran, or China, or even Venezuela?" Well, they're next. Think of the Middle East and Russia as just the out-of-town premieres before a show gets on Broadway. We've been working out the kinks to our methods, and now we think we've really perfected a universally applicable formula to apply to all our enemies in one fell swoop. Remember the baptism scene in The Godfather? Well, Hugo Chavez will wish he was Moe Green when we're through with him.
Happy holidays, authoritarian cabals!!
The Washington Post's Liz Sly has been doing some excellent reporting on the ground in Syria, and her latest report suggests that the latest batch of sanctions are starting to hurt Syria badly:
The dramatic decision by Arab states to turn against President Bashar al-Assad could further damage Syria’s economy at a time when it is already unraveling, posing perhaps a graver challenge to Assad’s survival than the country’s nearly-eight-month-old popular uprising, analysts say....
The extent of the damage is difficult to measure, and Syrian government officials say they don’t have indicators. But they do not play down the gravity of the situation.
Syrian Economy Minister Mohammad Nidal al-Shaar said at a conference last month that the economy is in a “state of emergency,” according to comments quoted by the Damascus-based Syria Report. In a recent interview in Damascus, Adib Mayalah, governor of the Central Bank of Syria, described the situation as “very serious” and ticked off the problems the economy is facing.
“Unemployment is rising, imports are falling, and government income is reduced,” he said. “In areas where there are protests, there is no economic activity — so people aren’t paying tax. Because they aren’t working, they are not repaying their loans — so the banks are in difficulty. And all this is weakening the economy.”
Merchants interviewed recently on the streets of Damascus report a 40 to 50 percent fall in business as consumers hoard cash and cease spending on all but the most essential items. Tourism has skidded to a halt, representing a loss of $2 billion a month to an economy worth $59 billion last year, Mayalah said.
“The whole system has been shrinking — and very fast,” said Rateb Shallah, a prominent Damascus businessman. “The sanctions are squeezing us, and it is definitely affecting us quite a bit.
To what extent the downturn is due to the sanctions isn’t clear, however.
Until now, only the United States, the European Union, Canada and Japan have imposed sanctions on Syria, with relatively limited measures mostly targeting individuals and financial services. The most serious measure, a European embargo on oil purchases imposed in August, goes into effect only on Tuesday because Italy sought to ensure that its existing contracts were honored.
But the experience of the oil embargo illustrates the broader crisis of confidence confronting Syria. European nations, which account for a vast majority of Syrian oil exports, immediately halted their purchases, even though they were not required to do so for three more months. And oil pumped since then has gone unsold, despite Syria’s boasts that it would easily find other customers. Syria has curtailed its oil production by more than 25 percent, Mayalah said (emphasis added).
Turkey threatened to cut off supplies of electricity to its neighbor Syria Tuesday, as the Damascus regime found itself under growing pressure from Arab, Turkish, European and North American governments for its ongoing lethal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
"We are supplying them (Syria) with electricity at the moment. If they stay on this course, we may be forced to re-examine all of these decisions," Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Tuesday, according to Turkey's semi-official Anatolian Agency....
Observers warn the protest movement in Syria, which struggled peacefully for months, is growing increasingly "weaponized" as more and more Syrian soldiers desert from the armed forces and join the opposition.
There's just a whiff of the Ivory Coast in how things are playing out right now. Effective sanctions + regional cooperation + weaponization of the opposition = eventual dictator downfall. It's not as neat and tidy as that equation, of course, but you get my drift.
There's an interesting irony here. Historically, the leaders of resource-rich economies have had greater leeway make mischief and resist waves of democratization. In the current climate, it would seem that these are the very economies most vulnerable to active economic pressure.
Obviously I'm not expecting an oil embrago on Iran anytime soon -- there are costs to sanctioning a major oil exporter. Still, these events are no doubt disturbing in Tehran and elsewhere.
What do you think? Is Assad doomed?
Travel and the associated jet lag from the travel have left me a bit befuddled and confused about the foreign policy discourse of the last week. I keep having to re-watch or re-read things just to make sure I'm understanding them correctly. I mean, did Rick Perry actually give the answer he gave on the Pakistani nukes question? Did John Mearsheimer seriously claim that a self-hating Jew can provide an accurate analysis about the state of modern Judaism?
My biggest confusion, however, is over the announced Putin-Medvedev switcheroo over the weekend. Indeed, my confusion operates at many levels. First, I was flummoxed that, well, any Russia-watcher was surprised by this move. Second, I was at a loss as to explain why any Washington-watcher would be fretting about the effect of this move on the "reset" of Russian-American relations. As Walter Russell Mead correctly observed today, "There is a good case for a businesslike US-Russian relationship no matter who runs Russia."
What has really confused me, however, is the possibility that this planned transition might hit a few bumps in the road.... like the actual departure of a powerful cabinet official:
Dmitry Medvedev, Russian president, sacked the country's finance minister on Monday, in the clearest sign yet that a deal between Mr Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin to swap jobs next year is provoking a furious backlash in Moscow political circles.
Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister, had said at the weekend he would refuse to serve under Mr Medvedev if he became prime minister next year. In dismissing the mutinous minister, Mr Medvedev sought to demonstrate that he still has authority, analysts said - despite the humiliation of voluntarily standing down as president in favour of Mr Putin.
Mr Kudrin, a fiscal conservative, is respected by investors and widely credited with seeing Russia through the 2008-09 financial crisis. His dismissal came after Russian financial markets closed but the rouble earlier lost more than 1 per cent against the dollar, partly due to apprehension about the conflict with Mr Medvedev....
At a meeting of a government commission in the town of Dmitrovgrad on Monday, the two men faced off when Mr Medvedev told Mr Kudrin that his statement on Saturday "appears improper ... and can in no way be justified. Nobody has revoked discipline and subordination."
"If, Alexei Leonidovich, you disagree with the course of the president, there is only one course of action and you know it: to resign."
Mr Kudrin responded with a jibe: "I will take a decision only after having consulted the prime minister."
"You can get advice from whoever you want, with the prime minister if you want," snapped back Mr Medvedev. "But as long as I am president, these decisions I will take myself."
A few hours later Mr Medvdev's spokesperson announced Mr Kudrin's departure for reasons "that were laid out clearly in the commission meeting".
The humiliating public swipe from Mr Kudrin is a measure of how far Mr Medvedev's authority has eroded since he announced at the annual congress of the ruling United Russia party on Saturday that he would stand down next year to make way for a return of Mr Putin for a third term as president, assuming the role of prime minister under Mr Putin.
Could this kind of elite discord lead to even greater political discord in Russia? Reading Joshua Tucker's collection of expert commentary, as well as Julia Ioffe's FP observations, my initial answer would be no. Kudrin quit because he wanted to be the next prime minister and was therefore the odd man out of the Putin-Medvedev exchange. That would not seem to be a great foundation for a mass backlash against this move.
On the other hand.... in the case of Russia, mass backlash might be less important than elite backlash, and Kudrin is hardly the only member of the elite to be on the outside of the Putin-Medvedev axis. The self-interested reasons for the backlash matter less than the very public signal that the leadership transition is not playing out so smoothly after all.
In the short term, the most likely outcome is that this contretemps will blow over, and the worst-case scenario for Putin is that he decides to ditch Medvedev for someone a Kudrin clone/deputy. In the longer term, however, I do wonder if this move will push the Russian regime towards greater instability.
So, as I said, I'm pretty confused right now. What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.