Below is the script of a presentation I gave last week at a seminar co-sponsored by Ikahan and Indonesia Defense University. Held at Hotel Borobudur, in Jakarta, the seminar was titled "After the Arab Spring: Lessons for the Indonesia-Australia Defence Relationship." Presenters reviewed the Arab Spring, discussed the lessons for multilateralism, and distilled the implications for Australian-Indonesian shared interests. Speakers included Prof. Amin Saikal and Dr. Rodger Shanahan, of the Lowry Institute.
Arab Spring, which erupted more than two years ago after a fruit seller in
Tunisia committed suicide by self-immolation, began with so much promise.
People in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, rose and deposed aging autocrats
that ruled for years. Many believed, with much enthusiasm, that the region
was taking the first steps toward democracy.
there were initially some holdouts, notably Qaddafi in Libya, Ali Abdullah
Saleh in Yemen, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, at that time the majority of
talking heads in the media predicted that these autocrats would soon fall, especially after the international community seemed to prepare to
intervene on the side of the people, after the besieged autocrats began to crack down on the rebelling
instance, in Libya, international intervention managed to tip the scale in
favor of the rebelling populace. Qaddafi was overthrown and executed in 2011,
thanks to the intervention by the United Kingdom and France, which was supported by the
United States and approved by the United Nations Security Council.
fact, Fareed Zakaria, a respected journalist and scholar on international relations, made an
argument that the Libyan case offered a new model of international
intervention. We might continue to see a combination of strong demand for outside intervention from locals and regional and international legitimacy that
allows a multinational coalition to assemble and to intervene.
however, what many believed as a spring period of blossoming democracies has
given way to the Arab Winter. In Egypt, the population went to the street,
supporting the return of a military dictatorship that deposed the unpopular yet democratically elected Moslem Brotherhood government. Libya is close to
anarchy, with the central government unable to actually rule the entire
nation. In Syria, the popular revolt has been hijacked by jihadists and Bashar
al-Assad’s regime seems to be regaining strength, even though it will
take a lot of time and resources before the rebellion is quashed. In the
meantime, the international community stays silent, even though the death toll
in Syria has passed over 100,000 and is still growing.
what went wrong? Why is the international community suddenly impotent in light
of the Arab Winter? Why isn't there an international coalition to help the
beleaguered rebels in Syria?
we see the limitations of international institutions. International
institutions only work when the power-holders in the institution are in accord
on what to do and what not to do. In Libya, France, the United Kingdom, and the
United States were able to convince both Russia and China that the intervention
on Libya was only limited, solely to protect civilians. At the same time, Libya
was not that critical to the interests of both Russia and China. Granted that
Libya has oil, but Libya only produces two percent of global oil
however, is different, even though Syria is not an oil-producing country. It is
geo-strategically important for both Iran and Russia. For Iran, Syria provides a
link to its Hezbollah client in Lebanon that allows Iran to project its power
to entire Middle East and threaten Israel. For Russia, Syria is too close for
comfort. Any chaos in Syria could spill into Russia’s restive Caucasian Republics
of Chechnya and Dagestan. Thus, for Putin, it is much more preferable to
strengthen Assad, keeping him in power.
China doesn't really have a dog in Syria, it watched with dismay as its
silence in Libya was seen as a blank check for regime change. As it always
opposes any international intervention in foreign states' domestic affairs, fearing that
it would create a precedent that would pave the way for international interference in its restive
provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, China then ganged up with Russia to prevent
direct international military intervention in Syria.
in Libya the risk-averse Obama could rely on both the United Kingdom and France
to supply the muscle, while the United States, due to domestic opposition to
international interventions, provided support, such as 75% of aerial refueling
flights, 70% of intelligence and surveillance flights, and munitions. In Syria,
however there is no state willing to provide the necessary military power for such an
in Libya, the rebels managed to unite, perhaps only temporarily, but long enough
to create a united front called Transitional
National Council; meantime, in
Syria, the rebels don’t speak with one voice. In fact, there are many internal
fights, squabbles, and not to mention, infiltration by al-Qaeda linked
international jihadists that actually reduce the international support to the
rebellion. In fact, in the United States, Senator Ted Cruz, in his opposition
to any intervention by the United States in Syria, acidly declared that the
United States “is not Al Qaeda’s air force.”
only after Assad (most likely his underlings) used chemical weapons on the
civilians that the world and Obama finally, half-heartedly, reacted, leading to
Nicholas Kristof’s observation on Twitter that, basically, the message to dictators is
“when you slaughter your people, don’t use gas.”
While the Arab League was united in supporting the rebellion by
awarding Syria’s seats to a coalition of Syrian opposition, and both Saudi and
Qatar have gave military and financial contributions to the rebels, the
assistance remains limited, as none of the Gulf States are willing to intervene
directly. They share the same dilemma the United States faces, as they are unsure who they
loathe more: the rebels, who are partially comprised of members of the Moslem Brotherhood and
jihadists, or Assad, who is backed by Iran, and thus a threat to
Saudi Arabia’s security interests.
are the lessons for ASEAN, beyond not using gas to kill civilians?
it has to be noted that both ASEAN and the Arab League shares many common
characteristics, notably in their lack of enthusiasm for a much closer union
similar to the European Union. Both ASEAN and Arab League nations are fiercely
independent, unwilling to have other states interfere in their domestic
result, similar to the Arab League, it is very difficult for ASEAN members to
create a strong united front when there is no common interest in responding to
international organizations are seldom prepared for unexpected and yet
predictable challenges to the status quo (which is often termed as "known
unknowns"). Granted, the timing of Arab Spring was unexpected. Yet
there had been a lot of indications that beneath the calm imposed by the
authoritarian governments, the people were restive and dissatisfied with status quo.
brings me to a third lesson: location matters. Both Egypt and Syria's strategic
locations prevented forceful international interventions due to competing
interests from their powerful neighbors. Libya, on the other hand, is not
surrounded by powerful states with clear goals and a vested interest in
maintaining the status quo, and that allowed the international community to
intervene once they were able to agree on at least some sort of goals and course of
international organizations are only as important as how its strongest members
want it to be. The lack of action from the United Nations in Syria was due to
the inability of the Big Five in the Security Council to reach an accord. Saudi fears of Iran prevented Riyadh from using the Arab League to pursue
stronger military options in Syria, even though Saudi Arabia didn't have qualms about intervening strongly, militarily in Bahrain.
ASEAN, the most important state is Indonesia, which has a vested interest in
maintaining peace and stability in the region and preventing neighboring powers
from intervening in Southeast Asia. Therefore, Indonesia needs to show its
leadership and start asking the question: what does it want with ASEAN?