President Obama’s Speech about U.S. Policy towards Syria

10 09 2013

obama

assad-syria

What did President Obama’s speech of Tuesday night tell us?  That’s not hard to discern.  In his own words, President Obama said, connoted, and conveyed the following:

  • The whole Syria policy and campaign is intrinsically linked to Iran.  President Obama said, “A failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.”
  • The purpose of a military airstrike against Syria is to “deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.”  So the goalpost has moved, from what was once the “Responsibility to Protect” civilians from mass atrocities – known as the R2P principle – which was implemented in the Libya 2011 NATO campaign, to now the use of chemical weapons.  Down the road, will the goalpost shift yet again?
  • President Obama possesses “the authority to order military strikes,” yet he felt the need to respect U.S. democracy and take the debate to Congress.  That means that he is making gestures toward Congress for political legitimacy at the domestic level for military strikes against Syria, but leaves open a huge window to employ his executive authority to order the airstrikes, with or without that political endorsement.  This raises the question of whether or not the airstrikes, if and when they are carried out, will be defined as “war.”  The War Powers Resolution imposes certain parameters on the President, once he engages in military actions in the context of (conventional) war, understood as deploying troops on the ground.  Given that President Obama has promised not to put troops on the ground in Syria, that might allow the military airstrikes to sidestep the definition of war, as was the case the President made with the Libya campaign.  NATO led that campaign against Qaddafi, which allowed the President to say that the U.S. is not engaging in a war; it is carrying out cooperative engagement within the framework of NATO, without troops on the ground, and without the intent of regime change.  We know how it ended for Qaddafi, nonetheless.
  • President Obama asked every member of Congress and viewers at home to watch the videos of the August 21st chemical attack.  He uses the word “children” seven times, and “infant” and “our kids” also added in his speech.  Clearly, he is appealing to the audience’s compassion and humanitarian sensitivities and ideals.  It’s an emotional appeal for reserving the U.S. right to carry out airstrikes against specific targets inside Syria, which may in turn lead inadvertently to more chaos and civilian deaths.
  • Diplomacy engines are working hard, and the ball was lobbed into Russia’s court.  Russia responded by saying they would be glad to oversee the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.  The ball is now back in the U.S. court.  President Obama is giving diplomacy a chance.  But, at the same time, the President unequivocally maintains that the U.S. has the military standing by to continue to apply pressure on Assad, and act in the event that diplomacy fails.

What President Obama omitted, did not address, or left in a grey area included the following:

  • He said that, “We cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  The U.S. responsibility for actually triggering civil war, arguably in Iraq following the troops pull-out, and potentially after the 2014 pull-out from Afghanistan, is not mentioned or addressed.  Anyone who has watched the film or read the book, Charlie Wilson’s War, learns that after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the U.S. packed its bags and left the Af-Pak region, despite Representative Wilson’s pleas for U.S. investments in Afghanistan’s postwar education sector.  The moment that happened, Afghanistan descended into civil war.  This also conveys the lesson that once a country enters a war, the chaos and instability does not end after the ceasefire or peace takes hold, or the core objectives of that country are achieved.
  • Chemical weapons use is not tolerated.  But, killing civilians by conventional means since 2011, with a death count beyond the 100,000 mark, is unchallenged.
  • The poison gas sarin is mentioned a few times.  While some analysts have said that rebels could not have deployed chemical weapons because it requires sophisticated technology, no one has mentioned the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in Japan’s Tokyo subway in 1995.  The cult, Aum Shinrikyo, coordinated five attacks on the Tokyo subway, killing 13 and injuring fifty severely.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), this is how the Aum Shinrikyo operatives carried out the sarin gas attack (see http://www.cfr.org/japan/aum-shinrikyo/p9238):

“During the morning rush hour on one of the world’s busiest commuter systems, Aum members put a liquid form of sarin, tightly contained in packages made to look like lunch boxes or bottled drinks, onto five cars on three separate subway lines that converged at the Kasumigaseki station, where several government ministries are located. The perpetrators punctured the packages with umbrellas and left them in subway cars and stations, where they began to leak a thick liquid. Witnesses said that subway entrances resembled battlefields as injured commuters lay gasping on the ground with blood gushing from their noses or mouths. Twelve members of Aum, including Aum founder Shoko Asahara, were sentenced to death for the subway attack.”

  • President Obama said, “Al Qaeda (AQ) will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”  Who’s to say that AQ can’t still get its hands on some chemical weapons?  By the way, many argue that U.S. airstrikes will actually intensify the chaos in Syria, not alleviate it.

One of the take-aways from the President’s speech tonight is that this issue or crisis will drag on for much longer.  Diplomacy is a slow process; civilians will continue to die; waves of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) will continue to flow within and outside Syria; and all the while the clock is ticking for Russia, Syria, and Iran to finalize the proposed deal with the U.S. with some U.N. involvement.  That will take a long time, and all the efforts might still come to naught.

Will the U.S. military remain mobilized while the clock ticks?  President Obama says yes.  Will important, pressing American domestic issues be addressed and resolved, like the debt ceiling, the budget, Sequestration, Obamacare, and the health of the economy in general?  If the Syria crisis remains in crisis status in the eyes of the U.S. President and Congress, then we can be assured that those pressing domestic issues will be placed on the backburner, and kicked down the road.

The most important component of the Obama plan and strategy is the word “deterrence.”  If chemical weapons are dismantled and removed out of Syria, then what?  Will that deter Assad from killing his own people?  Not likely.

If the U.S. carries out the airstrikes against Syria, will this action deter Assad from killing his own people?  Not likely.  The targeted strikes might degrade Assad’s capability to use WMDs, but certainly he will not wave a white flag and declare a ceasefire.  He might even try to crush the resistance even harder.

A big picture, long-term vision in the plan and strategy for Syria must be considered, for not just deterring Assad from using WMDs, but for comprehensive, sustainable conflict resolution.

The U.S. must illustrate that the goalpost remains at R2P, and not a new yardstick, or “red line,” of civilian suffering only by use of chemical weapons unleashed against them.

War is counterproductive for all parties involved, including the U.S., Iran, Russia, and Syria.  Sun Tzu said, “All war is deception.”

The bottom line from this speech, in very simple terms, is that it’s all about the geopolitical chess game with Iran.  Who will shout “checkmate” first is anyone’s guess.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College.  The views expressed are personal.

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Bastion of Islamism: Egypt and the New Middle East

25 06 2012

I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.  I lived in Egypt for four years, under Mubarak, and I never would have guessed that within a few years he would be overthrown, and the arch nemesis of the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), would win an election.  Yet, it has happened, and after a very long, drawn out, meticulous reading of the election results on Sunday afternoon, which I presume has served as a torture tactic in Egyptian prisons, finally the commission announced MB candidate Mohamed Morsi as the winner of the run-off, beating the former Mubarak PM Ahmed Shafiq.  Of course, the real hard work begins now, in dealing with old and new political institutions, the religious establishment, and the demands of the revolutionaries.  Plus, external powers will have to be reassured of the preservation of their regional interests.  The status quo persistently lurks in the shadows.

In my opinion, neither Shafiq nor Morsi were good candidates for a progressive future.  The former represents the Mubarak regime, and the latter’s religious platform generates apprehension especially among many women, religious minorities (i.e., the Coptic Christians), the revolutionary youth movement, and secularists and moderates.  Morsi inherits an unenviable task and circumstance, although anyone in his shoes would have faced similar daunting challenges.

Some of the pressing priorities and challenges awaiting him are worth reviewing:

Economic challenges:

This is by far the number one priority and challenge that Morsi faces.  Tourism has been hit hard since the 2011 revolution, and businesses and industries have suffered losses.  Labor disputes have erupted, and in fact a labor dispute is what started the whole revolutionary movement (April 6th youth movement).  Getting the economic engine going and in fact getting it to surpass previous growth levels will be analogous to climbing Everest ten times.  But, that is what’s needed.  Going back to pre-revolution economic status will not be sufficient.  For this to occur, the Egyptian economy will have to open up and diversify significantly, plus simultaneous advances in education and training (including technological training) must be implemented.  Given the meager literacy rates in Egypt (males 77%; females 62%), that alone will be a formidable challenge.

Political challenges:

There is already talk about SCAF setting a trap for Morsi, especially given that the constitution has yet to be written.  The political challenges are immense, and the uncertainties regarding SCAF’s agendas are great cause for concern.  Morsi will have to tread with extraordinary political savvy, and his lack of previous political experience already renders him politically handicapped.  He will need the most politically shrewd and skilled circle of advisers around him.  How likely that is remains to be seen.

Ideological challenges:

Internal ideological challenges within the MB, but also involving the religious establishment, will create factionalism and could engender indecision and/or poor social policies.  If Morsi gives in to pressures for instituting strict Islamist policies, many aspects of socioeconomic development and human rights can be seriously derailed and undermined.  Another ideological challenge is the impact of regional developments, mainly what’s happening in Syria, which in reality symbolizes the Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry (i.e., Asad’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah).  Although Morsi has already expressed improving relations with Iran, the Syrian conflict, along with a possible US-Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, could escalate the sectarian tensions in the region.  In that scenario, Egypt will be compelled to side with the status quo.

Regional challenges:

Israel is the number one regional relations issue for Egypt, and Morsi’s position regarding the Camp David Accords will be greatly scrutinized especially by Western powers.  In addition, instability in Libya next door may have an impact on political and security issues in Egypt, not to mention the problems in Sudan.  Floods of refugees into Egypt have long caused pressures on the local economy, and with continuing conflicts in these neighboring states, it could worsen.  Morsi says he wants to improve relations with Iran.  Given Iran’s support for the Asad regime in Syria, this might not prove a popular stance domestically, but it is still a step in the right direction, since Egyptian-Iranian relations have remained strained for years.  Who knows, at some point maybe Egypt could play a significant role in diplomacy involving Iran and her adversaries in the region and also in the West.  If Egypt can rise once again as a major regional player, then that will truly be a huge feather in Morsi’s cap.

External foreign relations challenges:

Egypt’s relations with the US and other Western powers will be critical for her socioeconomic development.  The caveat in this is the gauntlet laid down by SCAF, much of which remains unknown, in terms of treading that path smoothly in the transition process.  So far, the US has congratulated Morsi upon his win.  But, that does not mean that he will not be viewed with skeptical eyes and heavy scrutiny.  Moreover, he risks undermining his own credibility if he starts to wave the Islamist flag a bit too fervently.  Morsi and his government will have to maintain a delicate balance between Islamism and democracy, and along those lines, the “Turkish model” of the AKP has been repeatedly cited.  Morsi and company will remain under the microscope for a long time.

Morsi will face many pressures and temptations to invoke and perhaps implement stricter Islamic rules and policies in post-Mubarak Egypt.  If he leans more towards such matters and issues, then it will be an indication of his lack of focus on the real priorities of the country, those that pertain to socioeconomic development and progress, alleviating poverty and illiteracy, and improving the quality of life for the masses.

If other Islamist parties/organizations are any indication of the direction that they are inclined to take, for example Hamas and Hezbollah, then there is every reason to be skeptical about the MB in Egypt.  Islamist groups in the region have failed miserably to illustrate a keen capability to govern effectively and uphold fundamental human rights.  In the end, the successes of Islamist parties may render the region a bastion of Islamism, but with nothing substantive to show for it.  Let’s see if they can prove the skeptics wrong.

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






Rumble in the Syrian Jungle

20 02 2012

What’s happening now in Syria is increasingly complicated.  Urban warfare is difficult and costly, as countless civilians pay the ultimate price for indiscriminate shelling and armed attacks in residential areas.  Numerous YouTube videos continue to show such indiscriminate shelling in residential areas.  A severe humanitarian crisis is emerging in some Syrian cities.

While no one should discount the loss of civilian life in Syria on a daily basis, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Gen. Martin Dempsey is correct (in terms of tactical assessments) to point out that, according to Al Arabiya News paraphrasing him:  “Syria was the focus of competing Middle Eastern states, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, and posed different problems for the United States than Libya did.”

In other words, Syria is now the “rumble in the jungle” for a number of external powers, seeking to realize their own interests and agendas for a post-Bashar al-Assad Syria.  I wrote about this in a previous blog post, “The Saudi Specter in Syria and the World.”  What this means is that Syria is now the multidimensional chessboard for internal and external players, not unlike the case of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990).

Says Gen. Dempsey:  “There’s indications that al-Qaeda is involved and that they’re interested in supporting the opposition. I mean there’s a number of players, all of whom are trying to reinforce their particular side of this issue.”

While I cannot independently verify the presence of Al Qaeda in Syria (although last week Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a video calling on Muslims to support the Syrian rebels against Assad), clearly there are many hyena packs lurking in and around this jungle.  The hyena Assad is not alone in his pack.  Various other hyena packs also roam in the darkness, including Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, and China, and perhaps numerous proxies, and we cannot dismiss the respective interests and agendas of Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, European powers, and the United States.  Continuing with Gen. Dempsey’s assessment:

“Dempsey identified ‘a Sunni-Shiite competition for, you know, regional control,’ of Syria being played out between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a key barrier to U.S. intervention, as well as Damascus’s ‘very capable’ military. 

They have a very sophisticated, integrated air defense system. They have chemical and biological weapons. They haven’t demonstrated any interest or any intent to use those, but it is a very different military problem,’ Dempsey said, noting he had not yet been asked to provide U.S. military options on Syria.

… ‘It was a big mistake to think of this as another Libya’, he added.”

Meanwhile, on February 24 a meeting of various global diplomats will convene in Tunis, supported by the Arab League, to discuss support for the Free Syrian Army and provide humanitarian relief to civilians.  Interestingly, the Free Syrian Army has its own Facebook (FB) page, and also its opponents have set up a FB page called “Eliminate the Free Syrian Army,” and in parentheses you see “(Al Qaeda Army),” so it appears as:  “Eliminate the Free Syrian Army (Al Qaeda Army).”

Therefore, the cyber battle and diplomatic maneuvering all mirror the ongoing conflict inside Syria.  This is an example of modern, literally multidimensional conflict, which includes cyberspace.  Sadly, what gets lost in the messages is the ability for the rest of the world to extract the “TRUTH” behind the rhetoric and fog of war.

Moreover, as an international affairs analyst, I cannot fail to be mindful of the parallel crisis involving Iran’s nuclear program, and how elements of the power play between all of these players are seeping into the Syrian jungle.  Gen. Dempsey referred to Iran as a “rational actor,” in terms of how the regime calculates its courses of action.  That’s the basic presumption of state actors in international relations, but often states cross the line of rationality, like Assad’s regime, in the zeal for power and power projection.  In the end, they only end up looking like bloody-fanged hyenas.

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





Fisherman Diplomacy?

6 01 2012

International Relations have seen ping-pong diplomacy, chess diplomacy, sports diplomacy, and musical and cultural diplomacy.  Now, we have the potential for “fisherman diplomacy.”

Thirteen Iranian fishermen were profoundly grateful to the US Navy today.  That’s not something we see often.  Somali pirates had taken over the Iranian vessel and held the crew hostage for weeks.  This happened in the thick of tensions in the Persian Gulf region, with Iran holding naval exercises and threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz; and demanding that the Stennis aircraft carrier leave the region.  Ironically, the very same aircraft carrier group’s forces rescued the Iranian fishermen in response to a distress call.

This development is a golden opportunity for Iran and the US to talk to each other, and in the process calm the tensions that have been building up for the last few weeks.  Interestingly, during all the saber rattling, Iran has hinted at willingness to hold talks about the nuclear program.  The January 7th edition of the Tehran Times reports that Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi “said at a joint press conference with (Turkish Foreign Minister) Ahmet Davutoglu in Tehran on Thursday that the Islamic Republic is also ready to resume talks with the 5+1 group (the UN Security Council members + Germany) at a time and place agreed by both sides.”

However, I could not see any mention of the fishermen’s rescue on the Tehran Times website.  This is not the time to allow egos and pride get in the way of diplomacy and preventing future conflicts.  Rescuing innocent hostages from pirates should be seen as a gesture of good faith.  I recommend that all sides go fishing together, but not in pirate-infested waters.

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