A forum devoted to current political, economic trends, and news of the Maghreb region.

Friday, September 20, 2013

What Vladimir Putin Didn't Say About Libya.

*A Version of this article was published on Muftah

Vladimir Putin’s bold New York Times op-ed piece is a calculated step by the “bear-wrestling” Russian president to reassert his country’s power at the international level.

After publicizing an improbable eleventh-hour plan to disarm Syria of chemical weapons to halt U.S. strikes, Putin penned a public rebuke of the U.S. government. In an article titled, Plea for Caution, Putin publicly chided the United States for its recent military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and rebuked the true basis for its military adventures, namely, the much-vaunted “US exceptionalism.”

While Putin’s writing style is terse and direct, his op-ed contains various false and misleading claims. These include Putin’s insistence he was motivated by democratic values and international norms in proposing the disarmament plan.

In fact, Putin’s intervention in the Syrian crisis is a calculated geopolitical move that seeks to reinvent Russia as a super power in the international arena, and major power broker in the Middle East.

Putin also harps on the usual themes of Islamist extremism in the Syrian civil war, as well as radical Islamist abuses against civilians, while ignoring the equally violent and atrocious violations committed by the Syrian regime for the last two years.

But what is perhaps Putin’s most blatant misrepresentation is his attempt to paint NATO’s intervention in the 2011 Libyan conflict as leaving the country worse off.

Putin’s article presents Libya as a country “divided into tribes and clans,” thanks to NATO’s intervention. Contrary to Putin’s claims, however, it is the Libyan experience that demonstrates the positive impact that international intervention in Syria could bring. It is also a reminder of the role Russia has played in ensuring that no such benefit would be realized by the Syrian people.

It is true that, since Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime fell in October 2011, Libya has effectively become a nation of various tribes and clans, and that, at times, this has created various security issues for the North African state’s nascent political system.

But, what Putin failed to mention in his article is that however imperfect the Libyan experience is now, ordinary Libyans are much better off today than during Ghaddafi’s four-decade dictatorship.

Post-Ghaddafi Libya has avoided large-scale civil strife and is slowly moving toward a system of governance that in due time will likely ensure security and order. Libyans currently enjoy a great deal of freedom, particularly when compared to their experiences under Ghaddafi’s regime.

For the most part, the people of Libya remain grateful to the United States and the international community for the military intervention, which greatly degraded Ghaddafi’s forces and precipitated the fall of the country’s authoritarian government.

Libyans are cautiously optimistic about their nascent political experiment, and cognizant that acts of violence and terrorism, which are largely perpetrated by foreign radical factions, are growing pains for their infant country.

Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) has made marked strides toward democracy despite security challenges; the GNC still has no standing military and relies on a fickle mercenary militia force made up of former rebels.

The GNC, along with the current government led by Prime Minister Ali Zidan, has had an unsurprisingly tough time building a new political system after decades of institutional void, amid rising political overreach by Islamist groups.

But, not all is gloom and doom in Libya. The country is still engaged in a slow process of constitution drafting, and is pursuing a National Dialogue initiative that, if successful, will further the country’s democratic transition. Libyan civil society is more vibrant than ever, with various groups and organizations pursuing their particular conceptions of the public good.

Libya is certainly undergoing a tumultuous time, but this might well be a necessary part of the process of birthing a new state and society based on the rule of law and civil rights. Every step forward, no matter how unstable and slow it may be, is viewed by many as a step away from the country’s dark political past.

Unfortunately, at this point, a Libyan-style intervention in Syria might not be possible for several reasons. Libya had a relatively unified opposition in the form of the National Transition Council and a leadership figure in Mustapha Abdul Jalil who managed to rally all Libyans factions behind the cause of fighting Ghaddafi. Syria lacks such leadership, as well as a cohesive opposition amid the thousands of rebel groups, domestic and foreign, that are actively fighting on the ground. Other obstacles to intervention relate to the nature of the U.S.-Russian rivalry in the region as Russia is determined to back its Syrian ally and challenge US historical dominance in the Middle East. Other obstacles are traceable to Russia’s obstructionist posture in the United Nations amidst Russian continuous refusal of any UN Sec Council resolutions on Syria.

While Putin is unfortunately correct in his assessment of Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya has enjoyed monumental institutional achievements since Ghaddafi’s fall.

Libya is arguably one of the hopeful stories of the Arab uprisings, a country in transition that merits international help, in areas such as military training, economic development, institutional building, and conflict resolution, and is far from a cautionary tale for international intervention.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Is Assad Nearing a Libyan Moment?

Now that Obama’s “redline” has been crossed for the second time, the world is holding its breath for a likely military strike against Syria.
Alleged government use of chemical weapons in the early morning hours of August 21st in eastern Ghouta, a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus, could be a game changer in the protracted Syrian civil war.

Since the beginning of the conflict, Obama has maintained that use of chemical weapons would change the U.S. “calculus” for intervention in Syria.

On August 30, Obama announced that he will be seeking congressional approval for any military strike on Syria. Obama is shifting responsibility to Congress and the American people after he boxed himself into an arbitrary redline. In the absence of an international coalition, a UNSC resolution, and the UK parliament’s rejection of any British involvement in military action, Obama is trying to save face and his credibility by pursuing the constitutional path on war making, not because he has so much regard for the document for the Constitution didn't stop US intervening in Libya, but because geo-strategic variables are different this time, the president had to adapt and played this so cunningly.

While the United States is unlikely to commit any ground troops amidst general domestic wariness for another war, surgical missile attacks and air strikes against Syrian military facilities may yet be possible.
These incursions may further the heretofore unachieved dream of Syrian rebels to topple President Bashar al-Assad, and draw Syria closer toward a “Libyan moment.”

However, as things currently stand, Obama is far from committed to a sustained course of action in Syria, making it likely that Assad will still be in fighting shape when it is all said and done.
Understandably, the use of chemical weapons is a major fault line in the conflict, since the transport and security of these products is of paramount importance to the international community. Syria reportedly has hundreds of tons of sarin, mustard gas, and VX nerve agents. If these were to fall into the hands of radical non-state actors, the region could head toward a catastrophic scenario.

Syria continues to be a hotbed for various extremist Islamist groups, which in the event of state collapse may find themselves in control of a huge stockpile of conventional and non-conventional weapons.
Beyond the security concerns, there are humanitarian imperatives at stake, as well. The use of chemical weapons is the ultimate crime against humanity, as is the continued massacre of thousands of Syrians.
More than 100,000 Syrians have perished in the conflict and the international community has provided nothing but perfunctory condemnation. Western reluctance to intervene in Syria has done little but prolong the burgeoning civil war.

Assad’s latest alleged use of chemical weapons could be an indication of his increasing despair in the face of the mounting strength of rebel factions all around Damascus.

Alternatively, it could indicate a new found confidence as his forces, with the help of Hezbollah and the international backing of Russia and China, further consolidate their hold against rebel advances.
By gassing his own people, Assad could also be testing Obama’s “redline”, hoping that the international community will split on the appropriate means to respond to chemical weapons use.

This standoff within the international community could drag on for weeks while Assad’s forces break the will and resolve of the rebels.

But Assad may have misread Obama’s will to enforce his “redline,” which could well prove to be a grave miscalculation on the part of the Syrian president.

As currently imagined, the U.S. military response will be far from sufficient to end the conflict in Syria, amounting to little more than knee-jerk measures against Assad’s transgression of a fault line set by Obama many months ago.

Aimed against select pro-Assad targets, the strikes may help degrade the air and ground capabilities of Syrian government forces. These, however, will be nothing more than a slap on the Syrian president’s wrist.

In the past, this brand of delimited strikes has not served U.S. interests well.

The one exception was the Libya intervention, where a more viable opposition in the form of the Libyan National Transitional Council and wider support among the international community gave the strikes a durability that ultimately led to the toppling of Muammar Ghaddafi.

But, Russia and China felt they were duped in the Libyan case, as the United States went beyond the UN mandate to enforce a no fly zone and actively engaged in supporting opposition efforts at regime change.

Since then, Russia has dug in its heels about possible intervention in Syria. At the same time, the United States has increasingly felt the need to reassert its power in the region, even if this must come through limited, non-committal military action.  

Short of sustained and decisive international military support, Syria’s rebels appear unable to topple Assad. Without international intervention, the country may split into two parallel de facto regions of influence – one controlled by the rebels, and one controlled by the Assad regime.

While strikes would degrade the Syrian government’s military, they will only significantly alter the dynamics of the protracted civil war if sustained and coupled with other decisive military action against Assad's conventional and non-conventional military capabilities.

Only in this case could Syria experience a Libyan moment for its dictator.

In the absence of an international framework, President Obama must clearly articulate what the objectives of a military strike against Syria would be.

The Assad regime has shown utter contempt and disregard for the Syrian people, shelling and now gassing at will in an attempt to punish those who dare defy the president’s dictatorial rule.

Obama has pigeonholed the United States into a military strike, as the country’s credibility and geostrategic prestige risk further deterioration in the region. But reluctant military action is not the solution. The United States should instead work to engage all parties, with the help of Russia and China, to force a negotiated settlement and invest in humanitarian aid to rebuild a devastated Syria.