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

10 09 2013

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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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The Militant Sunni Juggernaut & the Anti-Shia Hatred that Fuels It

10 01 2013

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Stop Shia Killings

“Yes, we must finish them off.”  This was the response when someone from one of the Gulf Arab countries (to remain nameless) was asked about going after (i.e., killing) Shias following Bashar al-Assad’s fall in Syria.  I have predicted a Shia massacre, I even called it a genocide, in a post-Assad Syria.  This quote only confirms my fears and suspicions.

 Twenty-four hours after I heard this quote the vicious killings of mainly Hazara Shias in Pakistan took place in Quetta.  Ongoing violence in Iraq continues to target Shias there, and the Sunni-Shia hatred and violence in Syria has already spilled over into Lebanon, where they tortured and slaughtered each other with relish during the civil war (1975-1990).

 Ironically, it is the majority Sunnis in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf region, and parts of South Asia who sing the victim songs about how Iran is trying to “spread its ideology” and subjugate them all.  There is no denying that upon Ayatollah Khomeini coming to power in the 1979 revolution, one of his expressed priorities was to spread the Islamic revolution throughout the region.  However, given the fact that the vast majority of the regional demographics consists of Sunnis – with exceptions in Iraq and Bahrain – the fear of the successful spread of Twelver Shia ideology is unsubstantiated and grossly overblown.  And the regional actors know this.  Yet, they continue to fan the flames of sectarian hatred and fear.  I have come across numerous Sunnis from the Gulf region who don’t hesitate to judge Shias as “non-believers,” or “non-Muslims.”  Surely they have their counterparts among Shias, but Shias are greatly outnumbered, and in fact in Sunni majority countries they face increasing discrimination, prejudice, and even violence, not unlike many Christians in the Middle East and Hindus, Bahais, Ahmadis, and a host of other minority groups in Pakistan.  We must add girls and women too, but gender violence is a whole other can of worms.  I predict that persistent gender violence will trigger the true downfall of these regions, if they don’t get their acts together to protect girls and women.  But, that topic is for another article.

As much as we can try to attribute the recent attacks in Pakistan to what’s to come with US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, the fact is that systematic targeting of Shias has been going on for a long time now.  Many refer to it as the “Shia Genocide,” and there is basis for this term.  Just look at the number of deaths and injuries, and frequency of attacks, which have been rising steadily in recent years.  The Pakistani government is unable (and unwilling?) to enforce law and order in general, let alone pertaining to sectarian massacres.  It seems not only helpless, but also oblivious in many ways, and that will be to Pakistan’s detriment, as if matters can get any worse.  And, with Pakistan, it’s not just the internal violence that is sucking the country into its own self-constructed black hole, but it seems the military is itching for a fight with India again with the border skirmishes in Kashmir’s LOC.  There is a real potential in the coming months and maybe year or so for the Pakistani military to step in completely and carry out yet another coup, especially now that the US will be less active in the region.  If things get even uglier with the Indo-Pak skirmishes, the Pakistani military just might see that as an opportunity to make its move on the Zardari government.  Let’s see what happens.  My predictions are not always right, but who knows what’s around the corner for the Af-Pak region?

 The outlook for these regions is grim, especially given that law enforcement cannot provide basic security for the general public.  Plus, rule of law practically does not exist, and if it does, it’s usually in favor of the wealthy and powerful elite.  Meanwhile, the bloodshed continues with impunity.

 While I in no way support the brutal Iranian regime (which also viciously represses its own minority groups), as a political scientist, I can assess that, with all these targeted Shia killings proliferating in the Middle East and Pakistan, and the inevitable fall of Bashar al-Assad in Syria (Iran’s only strong ally in the region), the clerics in Tehran can only see more reason to weaponize their nuclear program.  Ominously, that will result in a domino effect with the rest of the region acquiring the same nuclear status.  That is for certain.  Then, we will witness the Sunni-Shia rivalry armed with nuclear weapons.  That is one very scary thought.  But, since the regional governments do nothing to prevent the sectarian bloodshed now, that is the outlook we can expect in the future.

 The governments in these regions need to wake up to these dark realities.  They are so preoccupied with their own prejudices and self-interests, but this is truly at the expense of the masses.  Nothing can be gained from all the violence at the hands of militants, regardless of their sectarian identities and ideological orientations.

 The other open secret that everyone sees, but has not received due attention, is that most of the militants in these regions are hard-core Sunni extremists.  With all the fear mongering about Iran spreading its ideology, the majority of violent acts being carried out from North Africa, in the Middle East proper, and in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir are at the hands of Sunni militants, primarily espousing some form of Salafism, and many of whom, if not most, are supported financially by the Saudis.  When we peel back the layers of political, military/security, financial, and other variables in this scenario, we see that at the core of it all is the Sunni-Shia rivalry (i.e., Saudi versus Iran).  These militants have many other motivations and agendas as well, but one of the main priorities they embrace is to “cleanse” their societies of Shias and other minority groups.  The Taliban committed horrendous Shia massacres during their rule in Afghanistan.  This is nothing new.  The only thing that is new and alarming is the militant Sunni juggernaut sweeping across these regions unchallenged.

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





G8 Summit and Iran’s Nuclear Program

21 05 2012

The symbolism of the G8 summit members calling on Iran to “come clean” with its nuclear program has been lost.  While Iran’s nuclear program embodies both a legal right under the NPT to use nuclear energy for civilian purposes, as well as legal restrictions for enriching weapons-grade uranium for military use – the latter of which is the source of the dilemma – when eight powerful countries dictate demands to a war-ravaged (Iran-Iraq War 1980-88) and sanctions afflicted developing country, much doubt, suspicion, and cynicism pervades especially in the developing world.  Iran, in many eyes, is viewed as the underdog in this case, and the precedent of the WMD-based military campaign in Iraq 2003 has left a bad taste in the mouths of many people.

On Saturday, G8 countries meeting in Camp David issued a statement, according to Haaretz:

“’We desire a peaceful and negotiated solution to concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, and therefore remain committed to a dual-track approach’,” the G8 leaders said as their summit came to a close at the US presidential retreat. 

The dual-track refers to the combination of heavy sanctions and serious talks.”

The G8 consists of France, Italy, Germany, UK, Japan, Canada, US, and Russia.

Although the case of Iran is contextually different, the policy approach to the problem resembles Iraq in many ways, especially in terms of the strict economic sanctions regime.  In Iraq, nearly twelve years of harsh economic sanctions rendered a devastating impact on the Iraqi people.

On the part of the P5+1 (permanent 5 UN Security Council members – UK, US, France, China, Russia – plus Germany), who have been involved in negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear program, a certain reality must be grasped:  while there are valid concerns for Israel’s security, given Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s verbal threats against Israel, there are equally valid national security threats and worries that the Iranian government accounts for when considering its nuclear program.  In order for comprehensive negotiations and resolutions to work, Iran’s national security concerns must be included in the calculus.  Only then could a viable resolution be derived.

Right now, the balance is tipped in favor of the GCC countries and Israel, with little regard to Iran’s security concerns.  Everything on the table, including missile defense systems and weapons sales, caters to the security concerns of the GCC states, Europe, and Israel, but if western powers want to give realistic incentives for Iran to cooperate and comply, they must also consider Iran’s security priorities and concerns.  These priorities pertain to hostile neighbors, including the GCC states (traditional rivals, with the exception of Oman), ensuring the rights and protection of Shia populations in the region, the presence of foreign troops in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, the crisis in Baluchistan, the crisis in Syria (Iran’s strong Arab ally), the regional arms race, and nuclear powers Israel, Pakistan, India, China, and Russia.  In addition, the ideological frictions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular (representing the Shia-Sunni schism), and the crisis in Bahrain, along with recent unity plans between Bahrain and Saudi, underscore the high sensitivities pertaining to regional politics, ideologies, and security issues.

In other words, Iran is surrounded by provocations and antagonists.  This is not to say that the Iranian regime is innocent.  Of course, it engages in its own brand of provocations and antagonisms.  However, in the framework of conflict resolution, a viable solution to a problem and potential conflict cannot be reached without considering and empathizing with the circumstances of all parties involved.  In this case, the P5+1, the G8, and others must consider Iran’s national security concerns.  At the same time, in the context of these considerations, the ideal opportunity arises to press Iran to cease all verbal threats to Israel and provide assurances that it will not attack Israel.  Also, Israel would have to reciprocate with similar assurances regarding Iran.  These points should be kept in mind when the P5+1 hold another round of talks with Iran’s delegation in Baghdad on May 23.

The champion of Peace Studies, Johan Galtung, famously said:  “Peace equals ability to handle conflict, with empathy, nonviolence, and creativity.”

There is far too much at stake to fail in the simple gesture of empathizing.

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.