Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The United Nations and Syria

American conservatives have long criticized the United Nations (UN) as a talking workshop, a debating society, that fails to get almost anything of substance done. Liberal scholars, analysts, and pundits have dismissed these arguments, seeing them as products of the hawkish right-wing of U.S. politics. Perhaps, but conservatives do have a legitimate beef, and the events in Syria, to be sure, are providing another example of the weaknesses and sluggishness of the UN.

In short, the UN has failed on Syria. There have been lots of meetings and lots of talk, but little agreement and even less leadership and action. Russia and China have twice thwarted efforts to pass strongly worded resolutions that might have helped the situation in Syria. Both countries are more interested in protecting their interests and coddling murderous tyrant Bashar al-Assad than ending the bloodshed. And the UN-Arab League representative to Syria, Kofi Annan, has engaged in shuttle diplomacy with the Syrian government, but has been stymied by Assad's unwillingness to take the talks seriously.

Yes, after weeks of complaints and scoldings from the West, it now appears Russia and China are softening their stances. Both have publicly expressed concern about the violence and a desire to see it end immediately. And in a surprise move, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently offered blunt words for Assad: "We believe the Syrian leadership reacted wrongly to the first appearance of peaceful protests and ... is making very many mistakes."

Today, Russia and China, along with the rest of the UN Security Council, backed a French-drafted statement of support for Annan's peace drive. The statement requests Assad and the Syrian rebels to "implement fully and immediately" Annan's six-point peace plan, which includes a cease-fire and access for humanitarian aid groups and organizations. Further, the statement proclaims the Security Council will "consider further measures" if Syria fails to comply with Annan's plan.

This is good news, certainly, but let's not get carried away just yet. Russia still supplies arms to Assad, arms that are likely being used to mow down the Syrian opposition. It doesn't support the idea of Assad stepping down immediately, and thinks that his departure is something that should only be broached in the context of negotiations with the opposition. Even worse, Russia effectively watered down and weakened diplomatic efforts at the UN. At Russia's behest, the UN statement does not condemn the violence but expresses "gravest concern" at the government-sponsored violence and "profound regret" at the death toll. Additionally, Russia signaled it would back the UN statement, but only on two conditions: that there were no ultimatums in the text and that Annan publicly specify the details of his peace plan.

Meantime, recent reports suggest that energy-hungry China is concerned that its foreign policy position on Syria risks angering oil giant Saudi Arabia and the other oil producing Gulf countries. This is why China reconsidered its strategy toward Syria, going so far as to support the UN statement. Even so, I have grave reservations about China's role in Syria. After all, Beijing really didn't want to sell out its buddy and ally in Damascus.

My guess: to appease Gulf countries, China will do just enough to appear as if its part of the solution, but at the same time act as enough of an obstructionist force to prevent the dynamics on the ground in Syria from changing significantly. As an example, it will be interesting to see how China, and Russia too, responds if Syria doesn't comply with Annan's plan. In this case, the likely scenario is that both countries will seek to block any punitive measures from being applied to Syria, which thus means there won't be any credible enforcement mechanism in place.

And undoubtedly, please let's not forget the major problem here: it took 8500 people to die and Assad to retake territory seized by the rebels, which allowed him to consolidate his position in power, before the UN could find consensus on a diluted statement that likely lacks teeth. Truly sad.

Arguably, the most helpful and productive institution on Syria has been the Arab League (AL). The AL has publicly expressed concern and dismay at the level of violence. It has even suspended Syria's membership. The AL put forward a multi-pronged template to deal with the ongoing conflict and violence in Syria. Among other things, this template places blame on the Assad regime, calls for an immediate cease-fire, and recommends a political transition to a post-Assad Syria. These recommendations have served as the bedrock of the various resolutions which have been debated and blocked at the UN, and they continue to inform diplomatic discussions. Clearly, though, the AL hasn't been a savior. Much like the UN statement, the Arab League’s plan lacks a method to ensure Assad's compliance, which gives him an easy out to continue his mayhem and remain in power.

In the end, I wonder if this set of events says something about future international relations (IR). In particular, does this foreshadow a greater, more prominent role for regional institutions? Anne-Marie Slaughter has put forward a similar claim about future IR. But her argument rests on the belief that regions will be inspired by the "successes" of the EU and that world problems are becoming so complex as to require time and effort from various regional players, not just the great powers.

One part of Slaughter's logic is dubious, however. Regional institutionalization won't flourish because countries see the EU as a success story. The EU is an enfeebled, debt-laden body that's slow to react to crises, even those at home or in its backyard. Which countries are inspired by that? Instead, I see a number of other possible factors at work. Culture, politics, complexity, sure, and desires for dominance and respect, are possible drivers of enhanced, strengthened regional multilateralism

Another potential driver could be the failure of the UN to address important issues. Simply put, the UN's failures have created a vacuum of leadership and responsible action in IR, and regional institutions are more than willing to insert themselves into this gap, for a couple of reasons. One, regional bodies can respond to problems in ways and at speeds that the UN, as it exists today, simply can't. And two, by undertaking more roles and responsibilities in the world, regional institutions can garner greater prestige and respect--two very useful, fungible currencies in IR. The case of present-day Syria, with the AL attempting to seize the moment, nicely illustrates my point.

It is certainly plausible that the rise of regional institutions like the Arab League, the African Union, and ASEAN, among others, follows from the aforementioned logic. Each are filling a need in the world, carving out their own space, and steadily becoming more esteemed and relied upon by major international actors, including the UN. This is a trend that could very well endure. And it is a topic to be followed and studied more closely in the future.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Debate on Syria

As Bashar al-Assad's rampage continues, even escalates, and more rebels and innocent civilians get killed, discussions of intervention in Syria have become louder and more numerous in academic and policy circles. Scholarly blogs and opinion pieces and magazine articles, as well as policymaker speeches and statements, have all touched on this topic. As one example, last week hawkish senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman--arguably the most prominent group to publicly contribute to the intervention debate so far--called for greater diplomatic, political, and military support (including U.S. air strikes) for the Syrian rebels.

What all of these statements and writings have in common is an effort to determine the costs and benefits of intervention versus those of non-action. Those advocating some form of intervention believe that the costs of non-action are greater than intervening in Syria, and that intervention provides larger benefits over standing-by and letting the situation resolve according to the internal dynamics in syria. Those against intervention reverse the aforementioned relationship, to varying degrees, between costs and benefits.

In the March 12 issue of Time magazine, I came across a particularly illuminating debate on the pros and cons of intervention between Shadi Hamid (Brookings Instituion) and Marc Lynch (prof. at GWU). It's a nice, instructive conversation precisely because Hamid and Lynch incorporate, and at times expand on, many of the existing arguments in the intervention debate. (Unforunately, the Hamid-Lynch debate is behind a subscriber paywall. For those who subscribe to Time, you can find this debate on pages 16-17; and for those who don't, you can get the gist of their arguments by perusing their blogs (HamidLynch).)

Hamid argues in favor of intervention. In his view, the costs of not doing so are significant. He believes the moral dimension of the internal struggle, in particular that the international community has a responsibility to assist and protect endangered Syrian populations, as well as the geostrategic context necessitates action. Regarding the latter point, Hamid writes: "Syria today is in danger of becoming a failed state. The regime has lost control over large swaths of territory. Al Qaeda and other extremists are hoping to take advantage of the growing power vacuum. Can the world afford a failing state and protracted civil war in such a vital region?"

Hamid calls for the U.S., working with other countries, presumably local Arab nations and Turkey, to take the initiative to intervene in and stabilize Syria. He sees this happening in two steps. First, to enable the rebels to better defend themselves, this American-led coalition would send light arms and more advanced weaponry. Second, the coalition would create safe havens, or "liberated zones," along Syria's border with Turkey. To accomplish this and defend these areas, Hamid admits, airpower, a naval blockade, and even troops (from Arab countries or Turkey) could be required.

The goal, according to Hamid, isn't regime change, but "to demonstrate international resolve, encourage regime defections and compel the Syrian government to alter its calculations about the use of force." More specifically, he believes a strong and committed intervention can demonstrate to Assad and his cronies that they can't win by using force and violence, which might put sufficient pressure on the regime to back down. It might cause Assad to come to the negotiating table or, at a minimum, agree to a cease-fire. The idea is that murderous tyrants like are only going to start being a part of the solution when they are confronted with overwhelming coercive power.

Lynch, by contrast, makes the case against intervention. He argues that "arming the opposition or using western airpower against Syrian territory will likely only play into Assad's hands," potentially empowering his regime. Moreover, carving out safe havens isn't easy and will require more military airpower than is typically suggested. And just as Yohanes has written, Lynch doesn't think distributing arms is the answer either. "By funneling arms to the rebels in the absence of any unified leadership, we could not hope to even the military balance of power." Lastly, intervention in Syria runs the grave risk of intensifying the fighting, making the conflict even bloodier, and hardening the political positions of both sides, which would only make a political/diplomatic settlement much tougher to reach.

Instead, Lynch thinks that helping the rebels to better organize themselves is the way to go. The rebels will never be an effective fighting force as long as they remain a divided and fragmented bunch of independent groups. They also must "persuade the undecided middle ground of Syrians, many of whom continue to support Assad out of fear for the future, to abandon the regime." Lynch contends that the rebels, in response to this problem, should focus their time and effort on formulating a political plan, one that aims "to reassure minorities and other uncommitted communities of their place in a post-Assad Syria."

From Lynch's perspective, the goal is to create "the conditions for a relatively smooth transition after [Assad] falls. This is why he's mostly concerned about the political cohesion among the rebels and their supporters and the depth of the opposition's support. It is these things that will determine whether the rebels will successfully oust Assad and if they can ensure the safety and stability of Syrian politics going forward.

Here is my take. I think Hamid is spot on to point out the moral and strategic interests at stake. And while his plans are completely understandable and normatively admirable, they are probably not doable in practice, at this at this point. Putting extreme coercive pressure on Assad could very well end the bloodshed. And it certainly satisfies a visceral temptation to lash out at evil wrongdoers like Assad. But Hamid overstates Arab support for intervention or at least doesn't parse out what specific actions they do support. Arms? Sure. But air strikes and boots on the ground? Highly doubtful. And there doesn't seem to be much citizen and policymaker support for invasive intervention in the West. Hamid's main contribution is to add to the growing chorus of people who believe that the status quo is Syria is not working or sustainable.

Lynch's more cautious approach dutifully takes into account the unpredicatable and often disastrous consequences of military interventions, which is important point often overlooked by foreign policy hawks. That said, Lynch's ideas are probably too passive to change Syria much in the near term. Furthermore, they leave more questions unanswered than solved. For example, how should the U.S. and its allies help the Syrian opposition organize itself? Lynch is very vague on this. He also never addresses how we will likely arrive at a post-Assad Syria. Will he step down? Will the rebels overthrow him? Or will Assad crack under international pressure?

Additionally, Lynch doesn't adequately explain how the "middle ground of Syrians" will switch sides, transferring their loyalties from the regime to the opposition. It is not a matter of persuasion, as Lynch indicates. The determining factor is whether the rebels can make enough military progress to inspire hope that they will win the conflict and oust Assad. This is the key, for the Syrian people will only side with whichever side they think will win. The risks are far too great to behave otherwise. Just consider this: if groups ally with the opposition and the rebels aren't successful in their resistance, then they will very likely be revenge targets (harassment, imprisonment, assassination) after the conflict has ended, if not before then.

We have to face the world as it is right now. One part of that is recognizing that Syria isn't Libya. Assad possesses far more political and military power than Gaddafi did before his demise. We should also note that the Syrian rebels don't really hold any territory (never really did, and Assad has retaken most of what the rebels seized), unlike the Libyan militias, which managed to take and hold large areas of land, making it easier for NATO forces to disburse assistance. Syria is a tougher nut to crack.

Also keep in mind that the world does not seem to have much taste for another intervention on the order of what occurred in libya. The West seems content to let the Saudis arm the rebels while they  undertake under the radar diplomatic and political moves to help organize the rebels, just like Lynch recommended. I don't doubt that these efforts could be of value when Assad finally does fall from power, but they only minimally address the immediate problem of the ongoing violence committed by the Assad regime. In short, they don't sufficiently shift the balance of forces and capabilities on the ground. The rebels are still getting routed and Assad is still firmly in power, buttressed by his military power and the considerable "assistance" via Iran. Given this situation, Assad thinks he can win the struggle for power and sees no need to make compromises. Hence, he is unwilling to implement a cease-fire or come to the bargaining table.

It will be interesting to see how the Arab states, Turkey, and the West, and the U.S. in particular, will respond should the Assad-sponsored violence, death, and destruction persist relatively unabated. Will they remain firmly against measures like air strikes and safe zones? Will they allow the Russians and Chinese to continue to set the agenda, which, of course, allows Assad to buy more time to crush his opponents and consolidate his grip on the country. Or is there a breaking point that will trigger stronger international action against Syria?

My guess is that, as usual, it will be up to Washington to take a much bigger overt leadership position. If anything gets done here, it will likely only come from America's urging and instiagtion and its military power (either the threat/application of it). Indeed, U.S. military power might be the only coercive tool that can credibly signal the international community's rejection of the Assad regime and its resolve to restore order. Does Team Obama have the stomach to deepen its commitment to Syria? The safety and security of thousands of lives might depend on it.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Update: Bashir's Sentence is reinstated back to 15 years

On February 24, 2012, the United States classified Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) as a terrorist group.  While Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa tried to downplay this issue, declaring that the "US decision only applies in the United States, Mr. Bashir himself probably does not relish this attention, as he found his sentence reinstated back to 15 years by the Supreme Court, overturning the High Court's earlier decision to slash his sentence to 9 years.

Not surprisingly, many, including Bashir, saw this reinstatement as the Indonesian government bending to the US pressure.

Yet, the remarkable thing about this decision is that it was greeted with a collective yawn in Indonesia. A few newspapers that carried this news buried it somewhere in the middle sections. For many, the United States seemed to be beating a dead horse, as the organization has been in decline ever since indications of its involvement in the Cirebon Mosque Bombing.

Apparently, the public and the media are far more interested in the stories on the corruption within the ruling Democratic Party, with a brief interruption, of course, by the rumor of a possible coup that was first spread by the Democratic Party itself.

As I mentioned in my earlier posts on Abu Bakar Bashir's lengthy sentence and the sentence reduction, Mr. Bashir's popularity has long been declining. As this excellent report from the International Crisis Group noted, even his popularity had declined among other radical groups, such as Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, in which he was previously had the rank of amir, the commander/leader of the group. With many questioning his leadership style, he decided to create JAT as a way to remain in control of the jihadi movement.

But this begs a question: is JAT the new JI? Yes and no. JAT in essence is a splinter of JI under Abu Bakar Bashir. JAT consists of many people in JI, though it has to be stressed that Abu Bakar Bashir is also one of the leaders of the JI. As a spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir has knowledge of but isn't in total control of the organization. In fact, JAT had criticized JI for their lack of inaction in the past few years, as the JI members became demoralized after the death and imprisonment of many of its leaders, and ended up doing jihad through pen, writing radical tracts, books, etc., rather than taking up arms.

Still, this does not mean that Abu Bakar Bashir will openly fight Indonesia. JAT itself spent much of its resources doing preaching, recruiting radical terrorists, and running a secret military training camp in Aceh that was supposed to only provide some basic martial arts and physical fitness.

But here again, Bashir ran into problems. First, even though he was the main leader of the JAT, he could not completely control the group, just as he couldn't completely control JI. The problem with radical organizations like JAT is that it tends to attract, well, the radical elements in society that would prefer using violence. While these people also tend to be charismatic and able to recruit lots of followers, they are also hard to control, as evident in the church bombing in Solo and mosque bombing in Cirebon, which were done by terrorists with links to the JAT.

The mosque bombing is the main reason why Bashir and JAT's popularity plummeted. Even though the mosque is located inside the regional police headquarters, it was basically a breach of a taboo to attack a mosque. Thus the crackdown on JAT, and the arrest on the Abu Bakar Bashir: the goal was to chop the head off the snake.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bridging the Academic-Civilian Gap

One of the things that has struck me about the debates and comments on Iran has been the sharp disagreement between the American academy and American civilians. Look at the comments below any article about Iran and you will find many of them express hardline views about Islam, the Iranian regime, and the use of force against Iran. But its more than just talk by a handful of Americans. According to a Gallup poll, respondents stated that Iran is America's biggest state-based enemy. And a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey is even more revealing: 71 percent of Americans believe Iran has nuclear weapons; 60 percent want the U.S. to pursue economic and diplomatic efforts to get Iran to shutter its nuclear activities, while only 25 percent support immediate military force against Iran. But if these efforts do not succeed, "support for military action rises to 59 percent, with only 39 percent opposing military action under those circumstances."  

Meantime, a number of academics, such as Colin Kahl, John Mueller, Stephen Walt, Jacques Hymans, and Matthew Fuhrmann and Sarah Kreps, have been trying to induce some caution on the Iran debate. In short, they are against the use of force (either by the U.S. or Israel) against Iran, for a number of reasons. They don't see Iran an as immediate threat. Air strikes on would probably only delay and invigorate, not scupper, Iran's work to join the nuclear club, assuming that this is what Tehran really wants. Moreover, they see military force as causing unnecessary deaths and casualties, disastrous regional consequences, and danger to American interests. In fact, some scholars don't even think there's a good justification for force against Iran. Mueller, for instance, argues that the Iranian threat is far overblown.

And of course, there is the longstanding argument, made popular by Kenneth Waltz, that seemingly crazy leaders, like Ahmadinejad and the clerics in Iran, are far more rational and calculating than conventional wisdom often suggests. If Iran does acquire the capability to weaponize and launch nuclear weapons, so goes the logic, it's leaders are not going to do anything too destabilizing to world politics and human security. The politico-religious regime will not blow up Israel or Saudi Arabia or any other country. Iranian leaders know that using force--either nuclear weapons or conventional means under the cover of its nuclear arsenal--carries great risks. Iran could face a devastating counter-attack that targets its military and communication installations. The clerics could face regime change, and possibly find their personal freedom and security in peril, by countries that have long sought a justification to topple the anti-Western political system. Additionally, overtly militant and reckless actions against foreign opponents, if unpopular enough, run the risk of stirring up and provoking opponents back home into agitating against the state.

In the end, as Mueller writes, "Iran would most likely "use" any nuclear capacity in the same way all other nuclear states have: for prestige (or ego‑stoking) and to deter real or perceived threats. Historical experience strongly suggests that new nuclear countries, even ones that once seemed hugely threatening, like communist China in the 1960s, are content to use their weapons for such purposes."  

My take: What if these scholars are right? Shouldn't they and (the many, I suspect) other like-minded scholars aim to communicate to wider audience, at least more often they currently do? Simply put, the issue of Iran and its nuclear capabilities is extremely serious and important, and they have specialized knowledge. Why sit back and let the Iran issue be dominated by political partisanship and demagoguery (from inside and outside the U.S.)? With a more focused and substantial effort, academics might be able to play a relatively prominent, perhaps decisive, role in the current debates on Iran. 

In some ways, these questions remind me of the work Alexander George completed on academic-policymaker relations. George in part explored how academics could better communicate with policymakers by making their research more digestible and consumable by decision makers in Washington. Here, in this blog post, I'm interested in how academics can "bridge the gap" with ordinary citizens. What can academics do to reach out to citizens and explain their research and writings and thoughts in a clear and intelligible manner.

In this vein, there are multiple things academics can do. They can author blogs. They can write opinion pieces and magazine articles in mainstream, popular publications. Academics can produce manuscripts for publication at popular presses like Random House and W.W. Norton. They can make appearances on news/current affairs shows on television and radio. They can organize and participate in community conferences and meetings. And if they want to get really ambitious, they could coordinate their outreach activities, making them more powerful. All of these are ways for academics to disseminate their work and ideas jargon-fee to a larger, non-academic audience.

To be clear, some scholars do some of what I mentioned above. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Joseph Nye, Andrew Bacevich, and Vali Nasr, among others, routinely pen incisive opinion pieces in leading American newspapers. And some academics do actively blog. Slaughter, Stephen Walt, Daniel Drezner, Joshua Landis, Juan Cole and Walter Russell Mead have excellent blogs. And there are several collaborative efforts, such as The Monkey Cage and The Duck of Minerva. Scholars are also periodic guests on NPR and Charlie Rose and The Daily Show.

But let's not kid ourselves. The bulk of what academics do is churn out work that's primarily directed at other scholars. As we all know, they are specialists conducting research and writing on narrow scholarly debates and literatures

Unfortunately, my proposal for improved engagement between academics and civilians does not come without problems. Let's briefly look at some of them.

(1) There are academic disincentives to get more involved in public policy debates. Academics don't get professionally rewarded for penning blog posts, opinion pieces, or magazine articles. All of those things are work outside of their standard, expected scholarly responsibilities. And they take up time for things that academics usually get rewarded for--publishing, teaching, university service, and so on.

(2) Many scholars don't see themselves as participants in politics, that they're outside of the game, serving as observers, analysts, and critics. As a result, they are disinclined to participate in foreign policy advocacy.

(3) Even if more academics spend more of their time in foreign policy debates, Americans have to seek out what they say and pay attention. Which isn't something we should assume will happen. After all, we know that Americans tend to stick to their preferred niche sources of information (by issue area, ideology, etc.), and those sources understandably rarely include work from academia. The hardest group to attract will likely be hardcore conservatives, who view academics as biased and liberal.

(4) Relatedly, even if Americans access information from academics, as the psychology literature shows us, it is unlikely that they'll change their minds about policy issues, especially if they are really committed in their beliefs. Instead, the group to target is probably the uncommitted, those who don't have a set of beliefs that's already entrenched and resistant to change.

In sum, there are no easy solutions. It would be helpful if academic schools and departments more greatly valued non-academic work (blogging, opinion pieces, etc.) when making decisions about tenure and pay raises. It would change incentive structures, and might alter how academics view themselves. But even here, this doesn't come without a host of problems. For instance, academics might resist changes in how they conduct their business. Bureaucratic changes in how departments and schools operate takes a long time. And with more academic voices in the field, we're likely to see public disagreements among scholars, which would only create confusion among citizens. Who do we believe? Which academic, which expert, is right?  (Matthew Kroenig's piece in Foreign Affairs is the most prominent example right now of an academic stoking the fires of war against Iran.)

In this post, above all, I'm mostly hoping to start a conversation about the role of academics in pressing policy debates, such as possible military conflict in Iran. Clearly, they can engage more with American citizens. But do they want to? And do they have a responsibility to do so, as I suggested above?   

What do you think? Let us know.