Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What's happening in Syria?

Several people have asked me recently what the heck is going on in Syria. So I've written a brief run down of what's going on and how we got here. This is meant as a primer, and a lot of what I wrote is admittedly overly simplified. But hopefully it captures the important stuff without obfuscating too much.

This is what is happening in Syria:

Inspired by other Arab uprisings, the Syrian people began a peaceful movement in 2011 to reform and later overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad. Bashar and his father Hafez before him have ruled Syria with an iron grip for decades. It was therefore no surprise the regime responded with a violent crackdown. Assad promised that the region would burn if the international community supported the opposition.

The Syrian opposition failed to unify in the face of regime violence, as some continued to protest peacefully but others began to pick up arms to meet force with force. Neighborhood defense forces and military defectors grew into the Free Syrian Army, a loose coalition of armed groups across the country opposed to the Assad regime. Protests morphed into clashes and, soon enough, full-on battles.

The violence exacerbated pre-existing societal cleavages within the country, and sectarianism grew increasingly salient. Sunnis, who represent the majority of Syrians, became the loudest voice within the opposition. Assad, who comes from the minority Alawite community, attracted the support of other minority sects, including Shia and Christians, who feared Sunni intentions. Of course, not all Sunnis support the opposition and not all minorities support the regime – but these schisms have grown ever deeper. Kurdish Syrians have also fought both sides as they attempt to carve out their own autonomy.

Now, radicals from all communities have drowned out moderates. This process has been accelerated by the intervention of outside forces that have stirred the sectarian pot. Assad has relied increasingly on Iran and Hezbollah – both Shia who face common Sunni rivals. Meanwhile, Sunni groups inspired by and part of al-Qaeda have joined the fight on the side of the opposition and become some of its most powerful military forces. Gulf states, also Sunni, have contributed arms and financing to the rebels. As the war has become more transnational, so has the risk that it’ll spill over in neighboring Lebanon, Iraq and to a lesser extent Turkey and Jordan. Now, factions within both the regime and the opposition speak openly of ethnic cleansing and have committed countless war crimes.

And to be clear, Syria is a civil war. Over 100,000 people have died in the past two years in Syria, and there is no sign the violence will abate any time soon. One in four Syrians are now displaced from their homes. The battle has reached largely a stalemate, after a series of rebel advances were stopped and reversed earlier this year. The opposition has secured control of much of the north and the east, near the Turkish border. The regime has control of the south and the west, near the Lebanon border. The capital Damascus is controlled by the regime, but the rebels control many of the Damascus suburbs.

It is in these suburbs which the Assad regime has most recently used chemical weapons, likely sarin gas. It is not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons, but the scale of this attack (somewhere between 300 and 1200 dead) is unprecedented. It is the worst use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980's. We know the regime used chemical weapons because we intercepted regime communications talking about the attack. Still, the attack only represents a small fraction of the total people killed in the past two years, largely from small arms, shelling, and bombs.

It is not clear why Assad would use chemical weapons on this scale. The timing is also odd, because the UN had just deployed a team of chemical weapons experts to investigate previous attacks. Some experts say the attack may not have been approved from the top. Others suggest that they meant to use chemical weapons, but accidentally killed more people than they intended. What is clear, however, is Assad has been perfectly willing to kill civilians indiscriminately in a myriad of ways, and there have been little international repercussions for doing so thus far. So the fact he's willing to gas his own people is, sadly, not shocking. For what it's worth, the regime has denied responsibility and said it was the rebels who used chemical weapons. 

President Obama warned Syria last year that the use of chemical weapons was a red line that would fundamentally change our approach to the conflict. From an early stage of the revolution, the US said Assad should step aside to allow a political resolution. As the revolution turned violent, the administration resisted pressure to arm the Syrian rebels, claiming that their disunity would make it impossible to prevent arms from falling into extremist hands. After Assad first used chemical weapons earlier this year, the administration decided to finally arm the rebels, even though those very extremists are even more powerful than before. No weapons have yet been delivered in any sizable amount, but we have provided training to armed opposition groups and likely have provided other logistical support.

Unlike the US, Russia has not hesitated to provide substantial military and economic support to the side it supports: Assad. Russia, along with China, has consistently stymied every move at the UN to condemn and punish the Assad regime.

The latest chemical attack will likely push the US to respond with military force. The goal will not be regime change like in Libya, but to punish Assad for crossing our red line and for violating the international norm against using chemical weapons. We will likely target a few military installations and other key infrastructure, causing enough damage to make it hurt but not so much to force Assad to retaliate. It is unlikely we will risk flying our own planes over Syria, so we will instead rely on cruise missiles.  

For his part, Assad has threatened retribution against anyone who supports a military strike by the West. Fighting for his literal survival, it is unclear if any amount of cruise missiles will force him to abandon his murderous path.

Our European allies, and especially Great Britain, will stand with us politically and in a few cases militarily. Arab states seem hesitant to provide political support, especially after a July 3 coup in Egypt removed the pro-opposition president Mohamed Morsi. Unlike in Libya, the Security Council will not approve any military action, because Russia and China will veto any measure authorizing the use of force. They say it’s because they’re angry with NATO for overstepping its mandate in Libya by taking a mandate to protect civilians and using it to overthrow the Muammar Qaddafi regime. But in reality, they just care for what they perceive are their national interests. The US will instead look to build an ad hoc coalition to try to give our intervention the veneer of international legitimacy. 

There is now little hope in Syria, and our bombs falling on Assad targets will be lost in the noise of violence that has engulfed the country. Even if Assad were to fall tomorrow, the violence he has unleashed will continue for years to come. Worse, there are fewer and fewer good guys to support as extremists take control across the political spectrum. We can only hope to try to curb the worst excesses of violence within the country and try and prevent it from engulfing the rest of the region.

UPDATE: I added a few lines about why Assad may have used chemical weapons.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

My trip to Lebanon

I just spent the past week in Lebanon interviewing journalists covering Syria and Lebanon. I'll be writing something more formal about my findings shortly. But in the meantime, here are a few quick general observations about my trip, which was book cased by two bombings against Hezbollah targets.
  1. There is widespread anxiety and even a sense of inevitability that the Syrian war will spill into Lebanon. There is always sufficient tinder in Lebanon, and sparks are flying all over the place from both local and international actors. Not only has the war in Syria escalated sectarian tensions in Lebanon, but Syrian rebels have a clear interest in provoking a fight in Lebanon to force Hezbollah fighters in Syria to return home to defend against local enemies. I don't want to exaggerate this anxiety. Lebanon has balanced precariously for years now, and they've somehow managed so far. But the anxiety is more pronounced now because the risk is more difficult to manage.
  2. As tensions rise, journalists are at a significant risk of beatings and illegal detentions by non-state actors, especially Hezbollah. This has always been a problem in Lebanon, especially as journalists associated with one political camp try to report on events in territories controlled by another camp. But enhanced political tensions and the fear of violence will make it that much worse, especially as security forces grow more paranoid about infiltrators and saboteurs. International journalists will also be at risk of being accused as spies or worse. More on this later.
  3. It will also become increasingly dangerous for those who seek independence from Lebanon's rigid political camps. The Lebanese government is both unwilling and unable to protect its citizens. Protection comes through membership in a political camp. But the Lebanese who seek to bridge divides, who seek to upend the sectarian system, who criticize all sides, will do so at their own risk. 
  4. Despite the fear of violence, Christian areas of Lebanon remain party happy as ever. It reminds me a lot of 2006, where night clubs remained open as Israeli bombs fell on Hezbollah territory. It'd be a mistake, however, to think Christians can emerge unscathed if tensions between Sunni and Shia escalate to violence. If the Syrian war does spill over, the violence will not be so isolated as 2006 and it will be hard for Christians to stay above the fray. So perhaps they have Isaiah 22:13 in mind.
  5. Electricity outages are far more frequent than I remember from my last trip four years ago. My electricity was cut off a dozen times a day, even though I was staying in affluent areas. My friend told me he had power in his apartment for 12 hours a day. This is but one example of how the government is failing to govern. 
  6. Finally, one non sequitur from the airport. As a customs official was checking my passport, a man and his wife came behind me in line.The official looked up and started to repeatedly yell at the man, "What do you have?! Drugs?!" He then let loose a smirk and explained to me, "They're Iraqi." After passing through the metal detector, I lingered behind to make sure the couple was okay. After 10 minutes of what seemed like heated discussion and gesticulating, the man reached out and kissed the official on the cheek. The couple then passed through the metal detectors without harassment. 
UPDATE: I forgot to add one more anecdote. I stayed at a largely vacant Ramada in downtown for...$65 a night. Not a good sign for tourism and business. Admittedly, my flight to Beirut was relatively full, but it seemed to be almost entirely Lebanese returning home or visiting family. Sadly, I don't think this Ministry of Tourism video will help improve things.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Looking into Bahrain's crystal ball

It has been a violent week in Bahrain. During clashes coinciding with the two-year anniversary of the uprising, police shot and killed a teenage boy with their shotguns. In retaliation, skirmishers killed a policeman using a homemade explosive. The violence shows no sign of abetting. Who knows who many more were and will be injured.

Ominously, the Bahraini government announced yesterday the arrest of eight members of a "terrorist cell" only a few days after defusing a 2 kg bomb on a major highway. The government has made many such claims before, most of them hard to take at face value. Yet, even the boy who cried wolf was eventually eaten by one.

In short, this week left little room for optimism - except for the extremists on all sides who oppose any compromise that could ameliorate the crisis in Bahrain. The violence has overshadowed whatever meager light of hope the new National Dialogue offers. And without a political solution, whether from this dialogue or another, the future of Bahrain looks quite grim. Recent posts on social media can give us a preview of what we might expect if current trends hold.

On one side, you have the extreme anti-opposition who despise the protesters in the street and whose support for the government extends only to the extent that the authorities crack down on the protesters. Take for example the recent tweets of Mohammed Khalid (@boammar), a Sunni known for his inflammatory rhetoric. After the foiling of the purported terror cell, Khalid tweeted a line of rhyming Arabic poetry, "Cell after cell ... Wefaq has become the final arbiter ... The state has hollowed the law into a forgotten memory ... Terrorism has become like the American state ... This is the Khalifa's Bahrain." In another tweet, he asks "Why does Bahrain tremble before human rights organizations and doesn't tremble before the Creator of Man? Where are our rights as people and as security men before the rights of terrorists who betray the nation?"

A burning tire runing over "The Dialogue." Khalid tweets a pun, calling it "The Mooing" which differs in spelling from dialogue by only one letter.
For Khalid and those like him, Bahrain faces an existential threat from "terrorists" and yet the Khalifa regime does nothing to confront that threat. The risk is that they'll take things into their own hands, as has happened before. The worst case scenario is significant violence between civilians on the streets, as opposed to the current bad case scenario of protesters clashing with police. The risk is real because Khalid et al. confuse the entire opposition for Iranian-backed terrorists. For example, the controversial anti-opposition Twitter account @7areghum blamed a recent fire bombing of a bank on "Wefaq's militias" and used the hashtag "Wefaq's terrorism."

The accusation is ridiculous. Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of al-Wefaq, has consistently urged protesters to remain peaceful because such methods strengthen the democratic movement and make it more effective. Just today, he tweeted, "The opposition's approach is peaceful. It rejects violence and believes in serious dialogue. It insists on its right to peaceful protest and to communicate with the international community, and it will not give up on the demands of the people." If it were not for his leadership among others, this week - and the past two years - would have witnessed far more violence.
Khalid would scoff at such statements as lies. But he would not be the only one scoffing. Those actually responsible for the fire bombing of the bank would also object. Not because they believe Salman is lying, but because they reject his thesis altogether. Today, the People's Resistance Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement on their Facebook page, the group warned "We are still in the beginning of avenging the martyrs" of the revolution.
In fact, their entire Facebook page is comprised of one statement after another claiming responsibility for attacking the Khalifa regime. In one yesterday, they write "God as our witness, we have targeted the entire mercenary system defending the criminal Khalifa regime and we promise the people we have some surprised for the regime."After claiming responsibility for another attack on Friday, they warn, "If the message was not clear to the regime and its followers, wait and you will see more."
Today, the People's Resistance Brigades has only 315 likes on their Facebook page, and Ali Salman's arguments about peacefulness still hold the greatest sway in the opposition (Note some might question whether the entire Facebook page is fake, but there's no evidence of that). But the consensus is shifting in Bahrain as moderates across the spectrum lose influence.  As it does, groups like the People's Resistance Brigades will gain popularity, the threat of actual terrorism will grow, and reconciliation will grow ever more distant.
For now, however, Wefaq and its allies can still mobilize massive protests that remain remarkably peaceful in the midst of violence. And there are still those across the political spectrum who seek a political compromise. So even if the future of Bahrain looks grim, we can at least take solace that there are many striving to change what they see in the crystal ball.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Long View on Bahrain

This week will mark the two-year anniversary of the uprising in Bahrain. A lot has changed since those first early protests, and yet so much remains the same.

New political groups have formed, but the main cleavage remains between those who have and those who have not. Broad political movements have fragmented, but the Khalifa have always taken advantage of such schisms to maintain their rule. The contagion of sectarianism has spread, but it has always infected Bahrain to some degree. The pearl monument has fallen, but its memory remains fresh as ever.

So, much remains the same as two years ago. And in fact, much remains the same from two centuries ago. The Bahraini uprising is only the latest iteration of Bahrain's long history in uprisings that have wracked Bahrain every generation under the Khalifa regime. The problem boils down to one simple truth: a minority of have's control the economic and political order, and the majority of have-not's will continue to revolt periodically until they succeed in building a more just system.