Sunday, October 21, 2012

The "arming the moderates" argument for Syria

One of most popular argument used by those in favor of an intervention in Syria is that if we leave the arming of the rebels to the Saudi's and the Qatari's they will arm their friends - Salafi, Brotherhood supporters and other radical Muslims. So - they argue - we should arm and support our friends: the moderate Syrians. Otherwise, when everything is over and the rebels have won it is the radicals who will dominate.

There are several errors in this thinking. The first is the assumption that it is desirable that the rebels will win. Assad has at least 20% of the population behind him and maybe much more. If the rebels win these people will become second rate citizens - something irreconcilable with democracy. So if you want to have a democratic Syria one should strive to reach some compromise between the two sides. As an additional benefit it will prevent a lot of bloodshed.

A second error is to think that a smaller group of Jihadi's is less dangerous. Tunisia had no fight and the extremists did poorly at the elections. Yet nowadays armed Jihadi group dominate the scene. Most selling points of alcohol have been closed and more and more women cover their head. Actually this is a rather normal pattern: in many revolutions (for example Russia (1917), Fance (1789) and Iran (1979)) after some time a radical minority grabs the power. This very probably stems from the fact that a revolution legalizes the principle that power comes from the mouth of a gun.

Neither should one forget that just as the communist of yore the Jihadi's believe that any means is justified to reach their goals. If they believe it will help their cause they will be happy to kill some of those moderate leaders.

A third error is to think that those moderate Syrians will blame it on us that we don't give them enough weapons. According to this logic they will always blame us when we don't help them enough to win. They know we can win the war for them so some of them will always blame us for not doing their bidding. But it is their fight and it is their decision not to compromise and instead to adopt radicals who antagonize a considerable part of the population. We should not reward them for that.

Friday, October 19, 2012

US intelligence helping rebels?

As I mentioned in previous posts there are rumors that US intelligence is helping Syria's rebels with a.o. satellite information. I suspect that the attacks on Aleppo and Maarat al-Numan were initiated and coordinated by the US. Initiated to occur at a moment government troops in the area were weak and coordinated because many different rebel groups were involved.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Brahimi on a dead track

According to the Jerusalem Post Brahimi is visiting the Arab capitals and Iran in order to get support for an armistice. According to the article Brahimi thinks the opposition is prepared to that and it is the Syrian government that is resisting: We heard from everyone we met in the opposition, and everyone (else) we met that, if the government stops using violence 'We will respond to this directly'," he told reporters.

It seems hard to me to believe that an opposition that is attacking peaceful areas like Aleppo and Raqqa province where a majority of the population prefers to be ruled by Assad is interested in peace.

What the opposition really is interested in is having its own color revolution. One can expect that as soon as there are serious talks about an armistice they will demand the right to demonstrate. Never mind that the level of intimidation that emanates from those demonstrations is such that they might be forbidden in many Western countries. Never mind too that they will aim for a big final demonstration in the center of Damascus - that will end with an attempt to overrun parliament and government buildings.

Syria's opposition has yet to show any interest in real peace - that should come from negotiations and compromise. It is a pity that Brahimi is not stressing that point more.

We know how Annan's armistice went: some rebel groups openly refused to participate - while many others confessed to journalists that they committed themselves only because they feared refusing to so so might make bad propaganda in the West - but that they didn't expect anything from it. Brahimi has done nothing to diminish this lack of faith in a negotiated solution.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The value of real diplomacy

Amidst America's failure in Afghanistan and its dubious results in Iraq and its senseless sanction regime against Iran it is good to see Obama finally doing it good against one adversary: Israel. He got Israel to give up on the attack plans on Iran by increasing military and intelligence cooperation.

If only Obama could muster the courage to apply such a positive approach to Iran...

Repeating Bush's mistake

We all know that Bush made a mistake invading Iraq and that he worsened it by abolishing the Iraqi Army and with the de-Baathification policy. Yet what Obama has done in Libya and still is doing in Syria looks almost a carbon copy of these policies:

- in both cases a government is attacked that formed no threat for the US but was seen as opportune to attack by the neo-cons who are more interested in finding the next outlet for their hatred than in achieving any political goals.
- in both cases all opportunities for compromise or a gradual transition are rejected.
- in both cases the results are a power and security vacuum, anarchy and opportunity for extremist groups like Al Qaeda.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Obama's amateurish foreign policy

Many article nowadays analyze Obama's foreign policy. Some put the accent on the realism: Obama's policy is not that different from the latter years of Bush jr. Others stress Obama's lack of personal relations with other world leaders.

One remarkable thing were the "leaks" that Obama is personally involved in the selection of targets for the drones. I see that as a regrettable form of micromanagement. It gives me a chilly feeling: Obama seems proud of his power to decide over life and death. But the downside are many. His close involvement robs him of the ability to see alternatives to drone attacks and leads him to ignore the weaknesses of the intelligence. It leads to a lack of interest in the big picture - as became painfully obvious when Obama refused to meet world leaders during the yearly UN session.

Then there is the Arab Spring. Obama felt that he had missed an opportunity with the Green Revolution in Iran and so he was determined not to miss the boat in Tunisia. But while he was right in feeling that this was more than a short uprising his understanding of how revolutions work is zero. And in seeing every uprising as a first step towards democracy he was rather mistaken. Democracy is more than voting. It needs freedom and a rule of law as a basis to function. Unfortunately revolutions break the rule of law and create a climate where power comes from the mouth of a gun. Obama could have intervened as a mediator between government and protesters interested in creating a climate with more freedom and in the end elections. But it looks like Obama finds it very hard to bring up the humility that is demanded from a mediator. Instead he showed the hubris of calling for the departure of Mubarak and Assad - blatantly ignoring international law. In Libya he sent his bombers and refused any negotiated solution. And now he is astonished about the anarchy...

The mistake to mention a date of departure in Afghanistan is well known. But his handling of Iraq - where he failed to achieve an agreement that guaranteed US influence - falls in the same category. In both cases there is an absence of a long term vision.

Then there is the "Eastern pivot": the move of troops to Eastern Asia to counter Chinese influence. It was clear that Chinese nationalism was getting obnoxious and something had to be done. But I found it disturbing that Obama turned to sable rattling while he didn't use more peaceful means to influence Chinese public opinion. It was even more distasteful as the policy was rather hollow: most of those troop moves simply meant returning soldiers who had been moved to Iraq in the previous years.

Obama claimed for a short time to want a dialogue with Iran. But his words weren't matched by his actions - he simultaneously worsened the sanctions. Obama seems also unfamiliar with the idea that trust needs to be deserved and built and that that takes time. Since Obama gave up on Iran he has behaved like a revengeful rejected lover.

Obama's Africa policy is a story of neglect. Only the conflict between Sudan and South-Sudan got some serious attention. While in some other places like Latin America the off-hands approach is welcomed after the aggressive Bush that is not the case in Africa.

Obama had little experience with foreign policy when he became president. But he could have repaired that by outsourcing it to someone who did know. Unfortunately it looks like Obama loves the power to much to hand it over. This has led to a focus on rather unimportant things like drone strikes and an overcommitment to the Arab Spring. On many subjects he has no vision and he seems incapable of the cool steadiness that is so necessary for results. It looks like the situation has hurt Hillary Clinton. After a few years as Secretary of State she looks much older and reportedly speaks in a monotonous way. What bothers her we may never know and she is too much the loyal good soldier to quit.

Postscript: This article (Inside Obama's Decisions: From Libya To Lunch) only strengthened my impression. The idea that he saved 100,000 Libyan lives is rather presumptuous but Obama doesn't show any sign of doubt. And leaving decisions about clothing and eating to others may sound wise but at the same time it raises the specter of a monomaniac who is so focused on his job that he is losing the perspective. Together is raises the impression of a president who is hopelessly dependent on his staff.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Syria, please negotiate with the Brotherhood

It is known that Brahimi finds the fragmentation of Syria's opposition the most difficult part of his job. One could add that the armed opposition is not independent but relies for its finances and arms on Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So if one group would decide to negotiate with Assad the likely consequence would be that the financiers will simply switch and support a different group.

All this financing is of course a violation of international law but I am afraid that complaints about that will achieve nothing.

So I think the most workable option is having the Muslim Brotherhood to negotiate with Assad. The Brotherhood doesn't represent all rebels but an important part of them does so. And as the present conflict is also partly a repeat of the conflict in the early 1980s a consent of the Brotherhood will give an important signal that a solution is possible. In addition, the Brotherhood is as a non-military organization less sensitive to foreign pressure.

It won't be easy to get the Brotherhood to compromise with Assad, but I think it is Syria's best chance. The Brotherhood is the only organization with enough authority not to see itself marginalized when it negotiates and compromises with the government. If it - with it grudges dating from 1982 and before - can reach a solution anyone can.