In Syria, It Takes Three to Tango

Mark Katz has an interesting post on his blog, which is repurposed from his 1982 book about Soviet military thought, but applies to Syria today. The operative part is here:

In wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction, both radicals and moderates unite to fight the dictatorship, with each group hoping later to establish its preferred form of government (radical Islamist rule or some form of democracy). The radicals in such a civil war may well initially be a relatively small and weak group compared to the moderates fighting the dictatorship. However, the radicals stand a good chance of eventually coming to power despite their initially weak position. For while some external forces are supporting the dictatorship, others will support the radicals, making them stronger compared to the moderate opposition. When the dictatorship eventually falls, the radicals are often in a position to take power since they have received outside support from their allies while the moderates have received nothing. Either of these could come to power, and so external support of the radicals increases their chances of actually doing so. The Americans, of course, also have the opportunity of supporting the moderate opposition, but because of the rigidity of American thinking, the U.S. does not do this. This is an error that the radicals can take advantage of.

He adds several caveats, but he introduces the idea that this is not a two-player game but rather should be thought of as a three-player one. There are similar dynamics between Brezhnev-era communist struggles in the Third World and Islamist-tinged insurgencies in today’s Middle East, in that radicals were often the most organized and thus most poised to successfully overthrow a dictatorship because they enjoyed more outside support, while moderates tended to get sidelined by their external sugar-daddies (especially after the dictator was ousted). Should Assad fall tomorrow, one can imagine that Islamists would enjoy greater means to organize voters and rally Syrians around their cause than the moderate elements within the opposition, which are divided and underfunded.


Is Syria’s Civil War A Result of Too Little ‘Bandwidth’ in Washington?

A commonly heard refrain about why the Obama administration has not done X or Y in [insert global troublespot name here] is that there is just not enough bandwidth. Richard Haass, discussing how Iraq distracted us from other more pressing priorities with Diane Rehm, said, “Presidents only have so much bandwidth.” 

The administration’s mouthpieces are also fond of the web 2.0 metaphors in discussing U.S. relations with the world. Benjamin Rhodes on Africa: “[There’s bandwidth in] the relationship for a lot of cooperation, even when we have difference, and even within the Syria issue, there’s that bandwidth. And that’s the message that the leaders wanted to send.” Even Obama himself has employed the notion of freeing up “national-security bandwidth.”
Huh? I understand that there are only so many hours in the day. Bandwidth is treated by its users as a finite and depletable resource, like political capital or canola oil, that should be used prudently. But part of me feels this “bandwidth” metaphor is a cop-out. When are presidents’ in-boxes ever empty? Juggling the breakup of the USSR, Tiananmen Square massacres, South Africa overturning apartheid, an invasion of Iraq, a follow-up no-fly zone in that country’s north, and an economy crumbling around him, George Bush Sr. still found time to send U.S. forces into Somalia to save lives in a place barely anybody at the time had heard of and which was of zero strategic interest.
All of which is to ask: Have scholars ever tried to code “bandwidth” in any systematic fashion? In other words, is it possible to examine the number of other pressing issues (e.g. immigration reform, healthcare, SARS outbreak, etc.) an administration is juggling at the same time? If there are more than, say, a dozen, that might cause the system to short-circuit and lead to paralysis. Do we intervene less overseas or lean more isolationist when bandwidth is low? Discuss.

Would a U.S.-Led Intervention Drag Out the War in Syria?

The debate over whether or not to intervene in Syria draws on two logics that portend inaction. First, political scientists claim that external meddling in internal conflicts only leads to protracted wars – interventions lengthen, not reduce, conflicts. Second, to actually arm Syria’s rebels would require armaments such as manpads and other hardware that could be used against Israel were an Islamist government to assume power in a post-Assad Syria, not unlike how the Afghan mujahedeen turned against the United States after the Soviet invasion.

Let’s dissect the above. First, scholars find that interventions, especially those on the side of rebels, do prolong civil wars. But the evidence, drawn mostly from the Correlates of War (COW) dataset, may be heavily skewed because of a few protracted conflicts – namely civil wars in places like Angola that saw no shortage of external involvement – and also suffers from selection issues. For instance, it is possible that outside powers select into civil wars because they are protracted, not that the act of arming one side makes war last longer (Page Fortna points to similar selection issues to explain “successful” outcomes of UN peacekeeping missions). Indeed, it is unclear why tipping the balance of power toward one side would make war last longer. The supply of arms and other supplies is less studied. In at least one case – the French intervention against the British during the American Revolutionary War – the supply of arms after the Battle of Saratoga definitely tipped the balance of power in the Yankees’ favor (of course, it helped that the French sent their navy too). Also, Iraqi insurgents enjoyed very little external support yet were arguably able to fight the United States to a long (ten years and counting) and ugly stalemate (We also know that unarguably the presence of a NATO no-fly-zone drastically reduced what would have been a drawn-out civil war in Libya). In other words, not arming the Syrian rebels does not mean the war will end any sooner, it only means we will have no skin in the game in a post-Assad Syria.

In Never Ending Wars (2005), Ann Hironaka argues that the spate of outside interventions was a function of the spread of weaker states after World War II which were unable to control their borders. Nearly 3 out of 4 civil wars since 1945 have experienced third-party intervention, most of which have entailed the supply of arms, aid, and bases, not putting boots on the ground. Of the 49 conflicts with no third-party intervention, the average length of conflict was 1.5 years. By contrast, those with outside intervention saw an average length of 7 years. However, these conflicts were protracted largely because outsiders were intervening on both sides (external intervention by major powers during the 19th century was more one-sided and thus actually made such crises shorter, not longer).

Indeed, I would argue that the literature on external interventions is not entirely undivided. Nile Metternich, for example, finds that interventions by international organizations (e.g. NATO), especially those with democratization mandates, are associated with shorter conflicts, provided rebel leaders come from ethnic groups representing more than 10 percent of a country’s population (which would fit Syria’s largely Sunni opposition). Clayton Thyne looks at unobserved variables (e.g. high levels of resolve among the combatants) that contribute to the resolution of conflicts even with third-party interventions.

The notion that somehow arming Syria’s opposition means a long and protracted war is misguided and driven by a realist-inspired desire to stay on the sidelines and never intervene anywhere. Several foreign policy experts chalk it up to a political gesture and a way to check the box that we are merely doing something. That is bunk. Arming the opposition would send a clear signal to the Assad regime that the president’s words are not merely rhetoric, that there is a responsibility to protect citizens and refugees, and that we can tip the balance of power in the rebels’ favor. It would also help wean the influence of Islamist actors in the region, since many of the arms flowing into their hands are coming from Qatar and other places that favor Islamist over secular groups.

On the second point, would arming the opposition have blowback effects against allies such as Israel after the war ends? This is obviously a concern but it should not lead to a policy of paralysis. Israel, after all, has responded to attacks from the Assad regime and has even provided military intelligence related to alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. We should no doubt screen which factions within the opposition receive light weaponry, but more importantly, we should be clear that the opposition is not predisposed to turn against the United States or Israel should Assad fall in the near future. That can be done through providing them with assistance – intelligence, training (which we are doing in Jordan), funds, etc. – contingent on future behavior. A stronger opposition will face less chance of a reconstituted Alawite faction trying to wrestle control of a Sunni-led regime (albeit the risk is that we may be arming them to fight the Alawites should Assad fall, a risk worth taking).

Not arming the rebels both scratches our realism itch to not involve ourselves in messy internal wars, as well as not arm a potentially hostile future Syria that would pose a threat to Israeli citizens. The second scenario is real, but the first should be discounted: doing nothing (or at the least, giving the rebels non-lethal equipment and some humanitarian aid) is not an option. The U.S. will get pulled into the conflict, either on our terms and our timeline, or on terms we do not foresee (consider a Syrian strike against Israel, which would draw us in). To be sure, by arming the opposition we will be taking sides in a seriously bloody civil war. But this is not Vietnam or Afghanistan in the making. Arguably Syria matters more than these two states to their respective regions’ balance of power. As Syria goes, so goes the Middle East. A victory by Assad cements the continuing influence of Iran and Hezbollah to stir up trouble in the region, from nuclear proliferation to terrorist attacks. The removal of Assad at least provides an alternative, albeit less predictable, path forward for the region. Yes, Islamists would likely wield more power in a post-Assad Syria but that is not guaranteed to spell deteriorating Israeli-Syrian relations or war. Israel still possesses a powerful nuclear deterrent and the backing of the U.S. The worst possible scenario for Israel is a worsening civil war on its doorstep, not an Islamist in power in Damascus.

The fate of Syria will reshape the Middle East for generations. The Obama administration’s defeatist attitude and deer-in-headlights policy will only prolong the conflict, not hasten its successful conclusion.

Wanted: A Few Good Experts on African ‘Chaos’

Experts on North and West Africa are hard to find. When Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire squared off over the presidency in 2011, for example, the coverage of the conflict was found lacking. Previously in 2005 there was a coup in Mauritania, and I remember being at my old job at the Council on Foreign Relations, scrambling to find a Mauritania expert. Now that Mali has heated up, I did a quick Lexis-Nexis scan of a few bylines who have written recently on the uprising there. Virtually none of them has published a thing on Mali in the past few years, either because of out-to-lunch editors or because their expertise is a chameleon-like thing that gravitates toward conflict (A welcome exception is Mike McGovern, whose work on West Africa is exemplary). Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations even singled out the Sahel as evidence that ungoverned territories do not brew terrorism. Consider this gem from 2010:

For years, observers warned that Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad were gravely at risk. And yet the extreme ideology of al-Qaeda has failed to resonate with the region’s population, most of whom practice a relatively moderate brand of Sufi Islam. Despite weak institutions, vast un-policed territories, and porous frontiers, the region has failed to emerge as “the next Afghanistan.”

Oops (In fairness, Patrick’s overall point is something I largely agree with – that we often overreact to ungoverned spaces). The trouble, as I see it, is that chaos tends to breed not just extremism but also bad commentary – Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy is 224 pages of evidence of this annoying trend. In the early 1990s Richard Holbrooke described the emerging chaos in Somalia as “Vietmalia.” In the 2000s, Niall Ferguson called the chaotic and increasingly symbiotic relationship between Beijing and Washington “Chimerica.” Now we are being told that Mali is descending into what The Economist has termed “Afrighanistan” (Et tu, Economist?)

Notice a pattern? The world’s most prized minds on geopolitics have reduced the world’s problems into poppy headline-friendly phrases that launched a thousand think-tank brownbags. To be sure, the world looks increasingly complex – um, Tourags are whom again? Assyrians are not the same thing as Syrians? – and so these handy phrases can help explain difficult policy conundrums to a lay audience. They also dovetail with a larger trend in our pop culture of slapping two words together – “Ginormous,” “frenemy,” etc. – which is not all that atypical in world history textbooks – after all, “Eurasia” is a real part of the globe.

The trend of slapping two countries’ names together and calling it a clever solution comes from several forces. First, the pressure-cooker environment among experts and authors to coin new phrases, to sell books, and to be invited on the speaking circuit. “Offshore Balancing Against China’s Emergent Regional Hegemony in the South China Sea” is a less sexy title and less likely to get you a TED invitation than calling the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia our “Japanamericapinestralia”. Our Americas policy increasingly resembles a case of “Cubexazuela” (our primary interests are Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela). Trans-Atlantic relations can best be defined as Frermanitain (the club of France, Germany and Great Britain). And our approach toward Africa resembles a “Malgerisomaliopiabokoharamakenyongod’ivoire.” (I know it rolls off the tongue.)

Such neologisms are distracting and dumb down the debate of such areas of the world. Not only are they distortion of the reality on the ground, but they insult our intelligence by oversimplifying complex events. Which may explain why they are met with scorn generally from insiders (see “AfPak,” which was not only confusing but also probably should have been inverted), and even full-fledged rejection by the authors themselves (Ferguson even distanced himself a few years later from his “Chimerica” phrase and predicted an “amicable divorce” between China and America). The trend shows the utter lack of imagination among practitioners and academics in the field. There hasn’t been a good catchy “End of History” or “Clash of Civilizations” phrase to define our current era. So foreign policy wonks throw everything they can up against a wall and see what sticks. Hence, Afrighanistan.

I shutter to think what will happen the next time a civil war pops up in some forgotten corner of the globe. Expect more lazy comparisons to Afghanistan.

Will Syria’s Refugee Crisis Prompt A Military Intervention?

This post originally appeared in the World Policy Journal’s blog here.

Two hundred thousand Syrian refugees have poured into neighboring countries in recent months as their country descends ever deeper into civil war. In August alone, over 100,000 refugees fled Syria, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The flood of refugees has pushed Turkey to amplify its calls for a no-fly zone near Idlib along its border, not unlike the no-fly zone imposed on northern Iraq to protect Kurds from becoming refugees in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. All of which invites the question: Is there a magic threshold before outside powers intervene to stem the tide of asylum seekers?

The relationship between refugee crises and humanitarian interventions remains unclear. On one hand, the use of brute and indiscriminate force appears to be a deliberate tactic by the Assad regime to displace locals and create refugee flows, thereby raising the costs for outside powers like Turkey to either provide humanitarian assistance or intervene militarily. But this tactic could also backfire, prompting calls for greater military involvement by the West.

A look back at recent interventions is instructive on how the size and scope of refugee flows has swayed policymakers and the public to intervene militarily. One of the major motivations behind the northern Iraq no-fly zone, established in 1991 was to relieve the burden of an estimated million-plus Kurds seeking shelter in Turkey by creating a secure zone for them within Iraq. Ankara was particularly worried about the influx of refugees exacerbating tensions among its own Kurds in the southeast, creating a kind of “Kurdish Gaza Strip” that could become a lawless zone of instability. In Bosnia and Kosovo, similar spillovers of refugees and the threat they posed to regional stability provided the catalyst for greater involvement and eventual military intervention. As then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, “Spreading conflict … could flood the region with refugees and create a haven for international terrorists, drug traffickers, and criminals.”

That being said, obviously not all refugee crises lead to international interventions. In fact, most don’t. The Great Lakes refugee crisis of 1994—when over 2 million Rwandans, most of them Hutus, fled during the aftermath of the genocide into neighboring countries—resulted in little humanitarian relief or interventions from outside parties like the U.S., just a few Dutch medics and nurses and a French field hospital. The biggest refugee crisis in recent memory—Iraq between 2003 and 2007—was the consequence of U.S. intervention, not the cause.

But refugees can create humanitarian crises and export instability, which in turn can ratchet up domestic pressure for military interventions. In Haiti, for example, the 1991 coup by General Raoul Cedras and an attack against pro-Aristide shanty towns two years later by forces loyal to him set off a chain of events that left some 500 Aristide supporters dead, over 300,000 Haitians internally displaced, and roughly 100,000 refugees, mostly forced to flee on ramshackle rafts heading for the U.S. coast. The coup and subsequent refugee crisis ratcheted up pressure on Washington to respond with military force. The intervention was preceded by an arms and fuel embargo against the Cedras regime by the UN Security Council, the deployment of international monitors to document human rights abuses, and the freezing of all government funds. The only real threat posed to the U.S. homeland was the boatloads of Haitians seeking refuge, but it hardly posed a vital national security interest. Still, the Black Caucus and pro-Aristide camp pushed President Bill Clinton to issue calls for a multilateral intervention in 1994. Peacekeeping responsibilities, however, were not handed over to the UN until March 1995, well after the 20,000-strong force, almost all of them American, landed in Haiti for Operation Uphold Democracy.

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The Realist Case for Intervening in Syria

I can only imagine that IR theorists of the realist persuasion pick up a newspaper detailing the scores of dead bodies and mass graves in Syria and let out a collective yawn, before turning to the sports section. The world is a messy place, anarchical even. We cannot intervene in areas where there is no overriding or vital national security interest. Consider the countless bloodbaths in sub-Saharan Africa and in pockets of Asia that do not dominate the headlines. What is special about Syria?

Obama is a realist of the Kissingerian mold. He favors mending relations with the great powers – the Russias and Chinas of the world — at the expense of smaller fry like Georgia or Tibet. He concerns himself with power, interests, and capabilities, not values or intentions, despite what his preachings in Oslo and Cairo might have suggested. His hands-off approach to uprisings across the Arab world are by now etched in history. Libya was an outlier, a function of a perfect storm – a madman in power, several humanitarian interventionists with the president’s ear (namely Susan Rice and Samantha Power), and timed far enough ahead of an election year. Those same stars are not aligned this time around.

Back to realism for a moment: the notion that realists are above carrying out humanitarian interventions is not exactly historically accurate. A case in point is the elder Bush’s administration, which counted card-carrying realists like Colin Powell and James Baker as members. Consider northern Iraq. Shortly after the February 27, 1991 ceasefire of the Gulf War, Bush urged the Iraqi people, including the Kurds, to “take matters into their own hands.” The result was a bloodbath and refugee crisis. There was little appetite for intervening in what was deemed to be an Iraqi civil war. Americans were more interested, according to the historian Robert Diprizio, in excising Vietnam’s ghost and inaugurating a “new world order” (the end of the Cold War would usher in a series of similarly empty phrases among foreign policy experts, culminating in the current administration’s call for “smart defense” and “smart power”).

Some columnists such as the hawkish William Safire harped on Bush to do more to help the Iraqis, but he generally faced little pressure to intervene. Helped along by first-hand testimony from Secretary Baker from the Turkish-Iraqi border, Bush launched Operation Provide Comfort, which altered Iraq’s balance of power by providing emergency aid to refugees and a no-fly zone in the north. In short, America’s intervention in northern Iraq was motivated almost solely by humanitarian concerns, not by any larger strategic objective to overthrow the Iraqi regime or stabilize American oil supplies. This was a mission carried out almost entirely by realists in the White House. Shocking.

Flash-forward one year and Bush faced yet again another humanitarian catastrophe on his watch – this time in the Horn of Africa, a part of the map most Americans could not find. There was no shortage of internal fighting and banditry. The threat of starvation hung over the region. But there was no clamoring for U.S. intervention, no threat of terrorism (yet) emerging from the region, no vital security interest present. Somalia was just one more trouble-spot among many fragile states. On the eve of the National Republican Convention no less, Bush launched Operation Restore Hope, a mission to secure areas of southern Somalia in order to deliver food aid. The mission, Bush said, was limited and “humanitarian.” The mission would later be aborted after the Black Hawk Down incident. But its original intention was not flawed, only its execution (and mission creep).

This administration has announced plans to intervene in Syria solely if chemical weapons are used, which essentially raises the bar to an impossible threshold (no rational actor, not even Assad, would use these weapons since they virtually guarantee outside intervention and his removal from power). This leaves the conflict in a holding pattern, as far as outside intervention is concerned: the U.S. will not do anything, provided the violence stays contained and chemical weapons are not used. Assad knows this, so he has no incentive to deviate from what he has been doing for the past 18 months, which amounts to serious war crimes.

In a realist world, states are presumably free to do whatever they like within their sacrosanct borders, even if it includes mass war crimes. But even realists have a kinder, gentler side, as our previous interventions in northern Iraq and Somalia have demonstrated. If Obama can save lives in Syria, he should. Even a cold-blooded realist would agree.

Should Dictators Get Their Own Club Med?

Last year, I was sitting at a restaurant table with some of academia’s top international relations scholars, discussing events in Libya. The suggestion was put forth, half in jest: Why not create an island in the South Pacific as a refuge of sorts for overthrown dictators? After all, Tunisia’s Ben-Ali had just fled to Saudi Arabia. Mubarak had escaped to Sharm el-Sheikh. And other despots, along with their families, were eyeballing ways to exit the scene gracefully.

Would handing out one-way tickets to some desert island be good for governments looking to avoid protracted conflicts and move on? It might mean that the International Criminal Court (ICC) would have to stop issuing arrest warrants for war criminals. It might also mean that current dictators might be more bloodthirsty since they know they can retire with a daiquiri in hand – this is the equivalent of Yeltsin demanding immunity from his successor for himself and his corrupt family to enable him to rest (or at least play lots of tennis) in retirement.

But should dictators be given their own exclusive Club Med? After all, the Mo Ibrahim prize is similar, as it essentially pays African strongmen to step down – they get to cash their $5 million checks, regardless of past human rights abuses. And most would argue that the initiative is a good thing for transitional democracy there.

Or consider the Assad regime in Syria. It still has not been charged with war crimes, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The Arab League has offered it a “safe exit,” presumably to Moscow, one of the last remaining places of refuge where Assad is not hated (As Matt Frei quipped on the Diane Rehm show: “I know it’s not London, it’s not Paris, the shoe shopping is not quite the same, but your wife will be happier there than she will be in dungeon in Damascus.”).

Arguments for an Island of Elba of sorts for fleeing strongmen are two-fold: a) the kind of violence meted out to Qaddafi, while perhaps cathartic, does not bode well for transitional democracy (had the Ceausescus been allowed to flee to Guam, instead of shot in cold blood, maybe Romania might have had a smoother transition to post-communist government); and b) the trials of ex-dictators can often backfire and be used to pour salt on wounds (the trials of Saddam and Milosevic come to mind – one was rushed and during the other, the defendant died halfway through).

Strangely, Saudi Arabia of all places has emerged as the retirement home, or Florida, of ex-dictators  (or if you need good medical treatment, it’s Cleveland – as evidenced by Egypt’s Omar Suleiman and Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev, both who received medical treatment there before kicking the bucket), which can’t offer great beaches or a boozy nightlife. Last time I checked there were no overwater bungalows in Jeddah. It’s not clear how Idi Amin spent his last few days. The House of Saud has often offered safe haven to those leaders with whom it enjoyed cordial relations (but notably it did not extend an invitation to Qaddafi), even if Saudis were not always on board. Other dictators have sought out comfier environments. Paris was the exile of choice for Haiti’s Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The “Shah” of Iran landed in Panama (en route to Egypt), Ferdinand Marcos ended up in Hawaii, and Congo’s Mobuto Seso Seko settled down in Morocco.

Giving dictators an easier retirement plan would be bad for long-term healing and transitional justice but good for immediate cessation of violence and short-term democracy building. The unintended consequence is that today’s worst human rights abusers – the Robert Mugabes out there — would have little incentive to temper their violence, seeing how they can retire peacefully and never atone for their sins. But it’s unclear that the Sword of Damocles-like threat of an ICC indictment is having much impact on reforming authoritarian behavior (see Sudan). The best example of a reformed regime out there is Burma, and its junta was not tried for crimes against humanity.

When revolution strikes, perhaps it makes sense to have a more formalized mechanism for giving the ruling family a safe exit, even if it means a one-way ticket to some faraway island and a safe haven from being prosecuted by some Baltasar Garzon-like magistrate (the fates of Charles Taylor and Pinochet would sadly become a thing of the past). It might not be fair, but it may beat the alternative of letting them hang around to fight it out.