The Qaddafi Template in Syria

13 01 2012

In his latest public speech, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad sounded a lot more like the late Colonel Qaddafi, who threatened to crush his opponents mercilessly.  Where Qaddafi threatened to go door-to-door, house-to-house, and alley-to-alley – and made good on his threats – Assad is now saying he will crush his opponents with an “iron hand.”  Assad started off in the early stages of the Syrian uprising sounding very delusional and detached from the reality on the ground, to the point of making ridiculous claims in his interview with Barbara Walters a few weeks ago.  He attempted to dissociate his presidency from the authority and responsibility of giving orders to, and controlling, the state security forces.  But, he fooled no one.

However, Assad’s latest 110-minute speech in Damascus manifests a shift in his rhetoric towards an even more threatening stance, which by the way contradicts what he said in the Walters interview, and now puts him in a similar light as Qaddafi.  Whereas Qaddafi referred to the opposition as “rats, cockroaches, and Al Qaeda terrorists on drugs,” Assad labeled his opposition as “terrorists, murderers, criminals.”

The critical question for the international community is whether or not the “R2P” (Responsibility to Protect civilians) UN mandate applies to the Syrian case.  With 5,000+ casualties (mostly civilians), the protesters in Syria have been pleading with the international community to apply the R2P mandate and protect them from Assad’s ruthless crackdown.

But, Syria is not Libya, and even in Libya, with its much smaller size and less formidable military compared to Syria, it took NATO and the rebels several long months to achieve their missions, and for the regime to fall.  Syria is a different nut to crack.  You can compare the military strength between Syria and Libya at Global Firepower:  Plus, one must consider Syria’s powerful allies, Iran and Russia, as a January 10th article in the Globe and Mail describes:

“The Syrian President still has powerful allies like Russia, five of whose naval vessels docked on the weekend at the Syrian port of Tartous, where the Russians maintain a base.”

Nonetheless, Assad clearly is not applying lessons learned from the 2011 Arab uprisings and revolts.  Perhaps denial and delusions of grandeur and invincibility are in the DNA of dictators.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.

Danger Ahead: Tipping the Ideological Balance in the Persian Gulf

10 01 2012

Attacking Iran would be an ideological victory for hard-line Salafists / Wahhabis, tipping the regional balance-of-power in favor of the ultra-orthodox.  This is not a minor consequence.  Like it or not, Iran’s Twelver Shiite national ideology is somewhat of a counterbalance to the ultra-orthodox Salafists in the region.

The Egyptian parliamentary election results show that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom & Justice party gained 193 seats (45.2%), and more worrying are the gains of Al-Nour, the Salafist party, which has 108 seats (25.3%), according to Jadaliyya.  And the Saudis are arming themselves to the teeth.

Now that tensions are rising with Iran, and supposed progress in its nuclear program may trigger further confrontations, what policy-makers are potentially failing to see is that Iran’s demise might translate into the ideological hegemony of hard-line Islamists, namely Saudi-oriented Salafists / Wahhabists, throughout the region.  That is not a good thing for Western national interests, nor is it good for the Middle East region, as it is the antithesis to liberal democracy, and I will even go as far as to say that it potentially will arrest the region’s development prospects.  That is a controversial statement to make, I know, but nonetheless, that is my opinion.  Theocracies by definition restrict people’s rights and freedoms, which in turn arrest comprehensive socioeconomic development; and Saudi Arabia, which exports its hard-line ideology globally, is the epitome of a totalitarian religious-police state.  If the region is tilting in that direction, then that’s very bad news for secularists, liberals, and in my view, women and minority groups.

Western powers need to be very careful about which regional horse they want to back in the showdown against Iran.  There’s no denying that the Iranian regime must be contained, but the danger is a scenario wherein we might inadvertently end up backing and empowering hard-line Salafi-types in the effort to keep Iran in check.  The longer-term ramifications, even ideological ones, must be thought out carefully, or else we’re doomed to repeat history.  Can we say “Afghanistan”?

In a January 9th opinion piece in the Tehran Times, former Iranian Ambassador to Syria, Hossein Sheikholeslam, placed the blame for the current turmoil in Syria squarely on Western powers allegedly backing the opposition Salafists.  He says:

The Arab governments that have dispatched representatives to monitor the situation in Syria actually have terrible records in terms of human rights and political liberty in their own countries. This hypocrisy shows that instigating a civil war in Syria is the real goal of these countries. The recent wave of suicide bombings in Damascus is a clear illustration of this policy, which is directly sponsored by the United States and is being implemented by the Salafis.”

Yes, we must be mindful of the source of that quote.  However, if there’s an element of truth to this, then we risk backing a horse that could potentially emerge as a Frankenstein’s monster down the road, not unlike what happened with the Cold War zeal to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan by supporting the most diehard militants in the Af-Pak region (i.e., the Reagan Doctrine).

And, this quote is in no way cited in support of the Assad or Iranian regimes on my part, so please do not misconstrue my comments.  My posting is only meant to serve as an analytical caveat.

As I remind my students, the Middle East is a 3-D chess game, with a lot of moving parts.  We must tread very carefully.  Expediency can lead to mistakes, some far too costly.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.

The Syrian Paradox

2 01 2012

In September 2010, I attended a public lecture at the Salve Regina University Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy in Newport, Rhode Island.  The speaker was the Syrian Ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha.  The auditorium was standing room only, and he proved to be a captivating speaker.  Ambassador Moustapha was articulate, engaging with the audience, knowledgeable, and overall an excellent orator, with panache for persuasion.

Similarly, former Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa manifested his cleverness and political savvy, especially during the Madrid talks (1991).  When you get a chance, watch the footage of FM al-Sharaa when he responds to the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who in opening remarks, even before the “peace talks” began, condemns Syria as the “haven for terrorists” (paraphrasing).  FM al-Sharaa was the next speaker at the podium, and he decides to change his speech upon hearing PM Shamir’s hostile rebuke; instead he whips out a piece of paper and holds it up to the audience, and al-Sharaa points to the paper and exclaims in the mic that Shamir himself was a wanted terrorist during the British mandate era.  Shamir’s photo was on the paper, with the words “WANTED” in bold type on top, a wanted poster from the 1940s.  You can find this footage in the PBS documentary film “The 50 Years War:  Israel and the Arabs.”

The point of all this is that Syria is full of paradoxes.  Having lived in Syria for almost a year, I discovered that the political elite is usually highly educated and politically very savvy.  The educated classes in Syria are also very impressive, and I am sure particularly among the youth who are spearheading the current protest movements, we are likely to find some of the most intelligent individuals.  Despite these rich assets, Syria has a very dark side, as we are witnessing today, although it’s not unprecedented.  The father, Hafez al-Assad, set the bar for brutality, no doubt.  So, in one sense, we should not be surprised about Bashar al-Assad’s reactions and brutality.  On the other hand, one would believe that after all these years the Syrian government would mature.  Not so.  Hafez and Bashar have kept Syria economically lagging, politically isolated (with the exception of strong ties with Iran), and violent repression seems as routine as breathing.  Police states do not flourish socioeconomically and otherwise.  They only invest heavily in the military, and lock their boots on the necks on their own people.  Imagine if all those resources were invested in development, education, economic ventures, technology, R&D, I mean, where would Syria be today with that kind of investment and visionary leadership?

Syria today is a grave tragedy, and each time I see the headlines, it breaks my heart.  Having seen the paradoxes in Syria, I should not be too surprised, but I am profoundly affected nonetheless.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.