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 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?
The nasty piece of work that is the Syrian regime has been amping up the repression of its own population as well as its overseas diaspora. What can be done about it? Well, this is a purely theoretical question, since
China and Russia the United Nations Security Council ain't willing to take action. Still, for the thrill of it, let's put on our thinking caps and ponder what measures could and should be taken short of force.
Although the Assad regime has essentially declared war on much the Syrian population, there is one coveted demographic that they have yet to alienate -- the business elites in Aleppo and Damascus. By and large the anti-Assad movement has yet to penetrate Syria's two largest cities. If sanctions could be designed to target those sectors of the population in particular, then the Syrian regime might feel its "selectorate" slipping away, undermining the regime even further.
As it turns out, these kind of sanctions were imposed on Syria for a short spell. What's surprising is that it was the Syrian government that imposed them:
The Syrian government on Tuesday revoked a recent decision to ban imports of most consumer goods, a move that had sent prices soaring and provoked outrage among a business elite that has until now backed the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad in his nearly seven-month contest with anti-government activists....
Analysts said that the ban imposed last week on imported merchandise, which included cars, household appliances and even food items, underscored a deep sense of anxiety among the authorities as Syria faces some of its most dangerous political unrest in four decades of dictatorship. Officials said it was needed to protect foreign currency reserves.
Analysts said the ban had been ordered without any study of the potential effects on the Syrian market or on Syria’s trade agreements with neighboring countries. Some economists in Syria said the import ban and its reversal were indicators that the Syrian leadership remained uncertain in the face of the uprising and its ramifications for the Syrian economy.
“The ruling caused a domestic uproar that was very important,” said Nabil Sukkar, a former senior economist at the World Bank who now leads the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment, based in Damascus. “They realized that they can’t do that because it will lead to soaring prices, smuggling, unemployment and harm the credibility of the reforms.”....
[An] Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity following diplomatic protocol, contended that despite the reversal, “the damage has already been done.” The official said inflation had tripled and smuggling had surged since the decision was made, unsettling the business elite in Syria, which has largely sided with the government.
The “well-to-do are completely dismayed with Assad,” the American official said. “They don’t think he knows what he’s doing. Inflation has gone up. He can’t fix it.”
If the Assad government is truly this self-defeating, then maybe there's hope for regime change after all. All we can hope for is that further bloodshed is kep to aminimum, and that no one gives the Assads a copy of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith's The Dictator's Handbook.
So the big Middle East news this AM is that the Obama administration has explicitly called for Syrian leader Bashir Assad to leave power. The White House blog has the full text of Obama's statement. On Assad:
The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people. We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.
The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement. What the United States will support is an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians. We will support this outcome by pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition, and standing up for the universal rights of the Syrian people along with others in the international community.
As to what the administraion is going to do to, well, you can check out the executive order, or you can believe me when I say that it amounts to a tightening of economic sanctions.
Now, conservatives have been calling for this move for quite some time, while Middle East analysts like FP's Marc Lynch, have been far more pessimistic. Two months ago, Lynch argued:
[T]here's "Expellus Assadum": the magic words by which Obama might declare that Asad must go and somehow make it so. While there's every reason for the U.S. to ratchet up its rhetorical criticism of an increasingly violent and brutal regime, tougher rhetoric isn't going to change the game. The entire course of the Arab upheavals this year demonstrates the limits of American influence and control over events or other regional actors. It most certainly proves that firm Presidential rhetoric is not enough to tip either the internal or the international diplomatic balance.
Libya should be enough to demonstrate this hard reality. I'm actually optimistic about Libya -- the diplomatic and military trends all clearly favor the rebels, the NTC has come together into an impressive government-in-waiting, and international consensus has remained reasonably strong. But even if Libya ends well, the reality is that it has taken months under nearly the best possible conditions. It isn't just that the President used his magic words. The Libya operation had widespread regional and international support, UN authorization, direct military involvement in a favorable environment for airpower, and an organized and effective opposition on the ground with a viable political leadership. And it has ground on for months.
The idea that invoking "Expellus Assadum" would quickly lead to an endgame in Syria just doesn't make sense. Demanding that Obama say "Assad must go" seems less about Assad and more about either moral posturing or about creating a rhetorical lever for pressuring Washington -- not Damascus -- to do more to deliver on that new commitment. By putting the President's -- and America's -- credibility on the line, however, it might force unwanted escalation into more concrete actions in order to deliver on the demand. So tougher and sharper rhetoric, with constant condemnations of violence, is not just appropriate but essential... but escalating to "Assad must go" at this point is not.
I've already revealed my sober assessment of this kind of policy step on Twitter. That said, I'm a bit more sanguine about this kind of call than Lynch. This strikes me as your classic gut-level foreign policy pronouncement, which, as I argued last month, accomplishes nothing of substance but, "just the acknowledgment of frustration can be politically useful, a venting of pressure that might otherwise lead to hopelessly misguided or absurdly risky policy options."
I suspect Marc is still haunted by the ways in which this sort of rhetoric about Saddam Hussein in the 1990s laid the political groundwork for Operation Iraqi Freedom. But it's not the 1990's anymore. The United States has three active military operations in the Middle East. There is no public clamor or enthusiasm for yet another military engagement, nor do I see any genuine policy appetite for such a move. Sanctions are already in place. Covert action might be taking place, but that policy option can never be publicly acknowledged. As the New York Times story notes, in calling for Assad to leave the United States is now moving towards the consensus in the region.
When the rest of the policy quiver has been exhausted, sure, why not call for Assad to leave? As a general rule, all else equal, I see no reason why the U.S. government should not express its actual preferences rather than hide behind diplomatese. Or, as Douglas Adams would put it, this rhetorical move counts as "harmless."
What do you think?
Yesterday Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provided his sober assessment of the situation on the ground in Libya:
Responding to questions, Mr. Clapper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Colonel Qaddafi had a potentially decisive advantage in arms and equipment that would make itself felt as the conflict wore on.
“This is kind of a stalemate back and forth,” he said, “but I think over the longer term that the regime will prevail.”
Mr. Clapper also offered another scenario, one in which the country is split into two or three ministates, reverting to the way it was before Colonel Qaddafi’s rule. “You could end up with a situation where Qaddafi would have Tripoli and its environs, and then Benghazi and its environs could be under another ministate,” he said.
The White House was clearly taken aback by the assessment that Mr. Qaddafi could prevail.
The White House wasn't the only actor that didn't like what Clapper was saying:
Clapper's prediction of defeat for the Libyan opposition prompted a furious Sen.Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to demand that Clapper resign or be fired.
"The situation in Libya remains tenuous and the director's comments today on Gadhafi's 'staying power' are not helpful to our national security interests,'' Graham said in a statement, using a different spelling of the leader's name. "His comments will make the situation more difficult for those opposing Gadhafi ... and undercut our national efforts to bring about the desired result of Libya moving from dictator to democracy.
Yeah, how dare Clapper say things that jibe with open-source analysis of the situation!!
I kinda sorta understand the argument that Clapper shouldn't have said this in public, but not really. To have a quality debate about policy options on Libya, this kind of dispassionate analysis is crucial. Clapper's job description is to provide an assessment of what's actually occurring on the ground, regardless of what people want to happen on the ground. It's then up to policymakers to craft responses to try to alter or reinforce that situation as they see fit. Calling for Clapper's resignation because he provided what appears to be an accurate assessment of the current state of play seriously politicizes the job of intelligence analysis and assessment. Doesn't the past decade suggest that politicized intelligence leads to catastrophic foreign policymaking?
What worries me is not what Clapper said but how the White House responded:
The White House was clearly taken aback by the assessment that Mr. Qaddafi could prevail, and Mr. Donilon, talking to reporters a few hours later, suggested that Mr. Clapper was addressing the question too narrowly.
“If you did a static and one-dimensional assessment of just looking at order of battle and mercenaries,” Mr. Donilon said, one could conclude that the Libyan leader would hang on. But he said that he took a “dynamic” and “multidimensional” view, which he said would lead “to a different conclusion about how this is going to go forward.”
“The lost legitimacy matters,” he said. “Motivation matters. Incentives matter.” He said Colonel Qaddafi’s “resources are being cut off,” and ultimately that would undercut his hold on power.
A senior administration official, driving home the difference in an e-mail on Thursday evening, wrote, “The president does not think that Qaddafi will prevail.”
Hmmm. Over the past week, the Libyan opposition to Qaddafi has been winning on only one dimension -- garnering international support. On the ground in Libya, not so much. And the international support won't affect the situation on the ground anytime soon. Even the tightest financial sanctions don't matter at this point. Qaddafi possesses far more financial reserves than, say, the Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo -- and yet Gbagbo has managed to stay in power for five months. Sanctions should eventually work in the Ivory Coast, but they're not going to work anytime soon in Libya.
Contra Donilon, the only way in which the dynamic changes on the ground in Libya is if international support becomes far more concerted and proactive in support of the Libyan rebels. Based on Mark Landler and Helene Cooper's analysis in the New York Times, however, the Obama administration won't be spearheading that kind of policy shift. For Donilon to suggest that, absent U.S. action, the dynamic is working in favor of Libya's anti-Qaddafi movement smacks of utopian thinking.
Graham and others should criticize the Obama administration's handling of Libya if they want to see a more forceful policy response. Criticizing the DNI for providing an accurate intelligence assessment, on the other hand, is seriously counterproductive.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.