Friday, August 30, 2013

Playing for Time, Waiting & Working for an Implosion

Edward Luttwak's opinion piece in last week's NY Times, In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins, is worth revisiting. 
At this point, a prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests. 
Indeed, it would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to emerge victorious after fully suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country. Iranian money, weapons and operatives and Hezbollah troops have become key factors in the fighting, and Mr. Assad’s triumph would dramatically affirm the power and prestige of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy — posing a direct threat both to the Sunni Arab states and to Israel. 
But a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East. That’s because extremist groups, some identified with Al Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria. If those rebel groups manage to win, they would almost certainly try to form a government hostile to the United States. 
Moreover, Israel could not expect tranquillity on its northern border if the jihadis were to triumph in Syria.
A few days later I came across a detailed taxonomy of Bashar's opposition that could bring a history student to tears. Aron Lund in The Non-State Militant Landscape in Syria opens with this:
The uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011 has always been disorganized, and it has become increasingly reliant on foreign support. It has grown large enough, however, to push regime forces out of vast areas of Syria’s north and east. According to a recent estimate by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, an estimated 1,200 rebel groups are currently fighting against the al-Assad government
Most of these factions first emerged out of a narrow local context, typically in a rural Sunni Arab village or neighborhood. With the passage of time, however, many have merged into bigger formations and connected across provincial boundaries, creating a web of interlocking alliances. These unity efforts have typically been initiated and sustained by foreign actors, including states, exiled Syrian businessmen and activists, and Islamist aid groups, which thereby gained leverage over their ideological and political agendas. The result is an extraordinarily complex insurgency, trapped in a political dynamic shaped by parochial roots on the one hand and international influences on the other, but seemingly unable to develop effective national actors.
Aron Lund is a freelance Swedish writer and author specializing in Middle Eastern issues. I find nothing with his name at Amazon or my favorite book source,, but anyone whose writing is a resource at West Point is important enough to cite as an expert. His scholarship is apparently well-respected. Here is a link to an "interview" via mail at The Angry Arab. And Josh Landis has an Aron Lund tag keeping up with his contributions to that scholarly blog.

Following a bewildering summary of the Syrian opposition groups, which he suggest represents only the most identifiable, he concludes:
Syria’s insurgent movement remains extraordinarily fractured, even after two years of warfare. The December 2012 creation of the SMC seems to have facilitated cooperation among the insurgents and established a framework for more effective unification, but it is still far from a functioning rebel leadership. Complicating matters further, several of the insurgency’s strongest factions—including the SIF, both al-Qa`ida wings, and the Kurdish YPG—actively oppose the SMC. The SMC’s influence is likely to grow only if it receives unified and sustained foreign support, including more advanced weapons, but the success of such a strategy depends on the uncertainties of American, European and Arab politics.
Regime forces, though more cohesive, are not in much better shape. In the opening paragraph he stated "[t]he Syrian regime has also begun to experience a fragmentation of its security apparatus, caused by its increased reliance on local and foreign militia forces, although these problems are still in their early stages." He ends by repeating that critical point.
Bashar al-Assad’s government is also becoming increasingly dependent on paramilitary groups, including autonomous or foreign-led militias. Their support has improved al-Assad’s staying power in many areas, but it also underlines the regime’s gradual loss of sovereignty and cohesion. The Ba`ath government’s strict messaging discipline and the centrality of Bashar al-Assad himself has delayed and obfuscated this slow unwinding of the state, but not stayed it. If the war drags on long enough, the al-Assad regime is likely to devolve into a decentralized patchwork of sectarian and client militias, only superficially resembling Syria’s pre-2011 dictatorship.
It is clear to me, as it must be to anyone paying attention, that the Syrian civil war is like one of those wildfires now burning up hundreds of square miles of the American West. It is too destructive and too important to ignore, but beyond the ability of any outside group to bring under control. Containment is the only rational response, along with all the diplomatic, economic and other resources available to minimize the damage. Following the wild fire analogy, military intervention is the equivalent to setting back-fires, or fighting fire with fire.

But in light of Lund's analysis, the argument for containment is more compelling than bringing matters to an early end. The Syrian civil war more nearly resembles a hostage situation than the usual struggle for hegemony. As Luttwak points out, America loses no matter what the outcome. No one is saying so, but as in the case of a hostage crisis, time is on our side. 

Misha Glenny, another scholarly expert expert of the region, made a strong point in a brief opinion piece today. 
The Syrian situation is not only about the use of chemical weapons (momentous though that may be). It threatens the stability of the entire region, beginning with Lebanon, because it is making the political dynamics in all neighboring countries even more volatile.
In the years after 1618, the attempts by tiny principalities in central Europe to challenge the status quo acted as a vortex, sucking in almost every major power. The now fragmented territories of Syria can exert a similar force on the neighborhood and beyond. 
The second similarity lies in the question of how you solve this. At the start of the First World War, the Balkans were referred to as a powder keg. One could have imagined the same being said about the myriad territories of the Holy Roman Empire in 1618. 
In fact, the Balkans of the early twentieth century weren’t powder kegs; the various principalities, Palatinates, free cities, and Imperial concessions of the seventeenth century weren’t, either. They were merely detonators laid by the great powers. 
Today’s Syrian detonator can only be disarmed if the outside parties who are indirectly engaged in the conflict are prepared to find a compromise agreement. This means the United States hammering out a deal with Russia. This agreement would then need to include the three major regional powers, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia would have to lean on their proxies to accept any deal, and Israel would have to take the peace negotiations with the Palestinians seriously.
It is certain that all the diplomatic resources of America and every ally with whom we claim even a shred of influence are diligently working toward a post-Syrian-civil-war roadmap. We can thank Edward Snowden and Private Manning for insuring that behind the scenes negotiations are now kept tightly under wraps. Call me a blind optimist, but I have confidence that the president and his staff are aware of the realities I have outlined, and are playing for time, looking for non-military openings, to contain this fire.

Glenny is not optimistic. 
What are the chances of that? The square root of very little. So with no viable political or diplomatic talks on track, I think we can be confident that regardless of whether the West intervenes or not, things are about to get very nasty.
I can only hope he is wrong.

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