The Great Debate

Preventing mass atrocity after Assad

As the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising approaches, close to 80,000 people have been killed, a million are refugees and several million are displaced. The Syrian army and air force are under severe stress and attacking civilian populations, the revolutionaries are increasingly radicalized in a Sunni Islamist direction and Lebanese Hezbollah as well as Iranian Revolutionary Guards are getting deeply engaged in the fight.

It may seem superfluous to worry about what happens to the Alawite community — the mainstay of Bashar Al Assad’s regime – after he falls. But revenge killing is common after an uprising of this sort, and few regimes born in mass atrocity survive as democracies. A massacre of Alawites could be prelude to state collapse, an extremist regime and regional warfare far worse than the spillover we have seen thus far.

How can mass atrocity in the aftermath of the Assad regime be avoided? Above all, it is Syrians who will need to make sure it does not happen. The Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has already made clear that it intends to construct a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic and democratic regime post-Assad. What needs to be accomplished to achieve that goal?

A lot. Here are just a few of the options that need to be considered:  A negotiated end to the regime. Atrocities will be far less likely if there is a clear, well-constructed and well-communicated end to the Assad regime, with a roadmap to a future democratic constitution that will respect minority rights. A chaotic collapse of the regime will make mayhem much more likely, including a possible “stay-behind” insurgency like the one in Iraq after the American invasion. International supervision. The roadmap could be implemented with oversight from a “contact group” that includes the main international powers with influence, including neighbors and regional powers. The big issue here is whether Iran is in or out, which depends on Tehran’s attitude toward any negotiated settlement. An international intervention force. There will be many armed groups in Syria, however the conflict ends. A strong, legitimate international intervention force of both police and military could separate warring parties, establish a safe and secure environment and protect minorities. The big question is: Who would provide these troops and police? Iraq’s neighbors have all been parties to the conflict. The Arab League is inexperienced at stabilization and peacekeeping. The United States and Europe are trying to stay out. New security forces. Assad’s army, police, intelligence and other security forces will be thoroughly discredited once the regime is gone. It will be necessary to reconfigure, retrain and reform the security forces so they can reestablish a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence accepted by both former regime elements and rebels. It was the failure to do this effectively that has made a mess of post-Qaddafi Libya. Training of a small Syrian “stabilization” force could begin even now outside Syria, for deployment into liberated areas. Accountability and justice. It is never possible to punish all those who have supported a dictatorial regime, but victims will be looking for satisfaction. This can initially be offered in a well-articulated plan of action for holding a clearly defined and limited number of senior regime figures accountable for abuses, as well as a broader reconciliation effort to give victims an opportunity to voice grievances and seek eventual redress. Outreach by the new leaders to communities that have not supported the revolution. Few countries are blessed with a Nelson Mandela, but even lesser figures could try to reassure those who have supported the regime and provide credible guarantees of security. They might even invite in foreign forces to establish a “safe and secure environment” for particular communities at risk. Basic human needs. Many Syrians are lacking food, water, sanitation and shelter. The country will need a rapid infusion of vital humanitarian assistance that is distributed fairly and transparently by a duly constituted authority. Quick stabilization of the economy. The Syrian economy will be in free fall. The country will be unable to pay its debts and will need relief from international obligations. It may also need a new currency and a credible central bank. It will certainly need jobs, especially for the many youth already unemployed before the war. They will otherwise find employment with militias unlikely to be sensitive to human rights. Local community development. Major development projects will have to wait. They will require a well-functioning government and a credible sovereign guarantee to reopen lending by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. A well-targeted reconstruction effort that local communities help plan and monitor, like the successful National Solidarity Program in Afghanistan, would be a good start, provide livelihoods and contribute to mitigating the likelihood of violence. Dispute settlement. As people return to their homes, disputes will break out over property, much of which will be badly damaged and destroyed. It is important to establish a relatively quick administrative procedure for settlement of disputes and recovery of private property, in particular real estate. Funding for civil society. Syria under Assad lacked the vigorous nongovernmental organizations that provide advocacy, serve as watchdogs and help protect human rights and minorities in open societies. Funding and empowerment of grassroots organizations committed to a democratic outcome and organized across sectarian and ethnic lines, including the revolutionary local administrative councils that have spontaneously appeared in liberated areas, can strengthen social cohesion and prevent violence. Safe havens for particular minorities. Odious though it may be on other grounds, temporary separation of ethnic and sectarian groups in the immediate aftermath of violent conflict can help to prevent violence and reduce risks to vulnerable minorities. Many Syrian neighborhoods are more or less segregated. It may be best to keep them that way for a time, but to move once trust is re-established in the direction of much more sectarian and ethnic integration.

Syrians will have to decide for themselves what they want to take advantage of, or not, from this laundry list. They may well also discover some new tricks. But the country will be far better off in the long term if Syrians and internationals start thinking now about what to do to prevent the worst from happening after Assad falls. PHOTO: A demonstrator shouts a slogan during a protest held to mark two years since the start of the uprising in the country, in Raqqa province, eastern Syria March 15, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib

Weighing U.S.intervention: Syria v. Congo

President Barack Obama, in a January New Republic interview, was asked bluntly if the United States should actively intervene in Syria’s civil war. He thoughtfully explained his reservations. Several concerned Syria, but the last one pointed to larger ethical issues. “And how do I weigh,” Obama asked, “tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

With this comment, Obama cut to the heart of an age-old dilemma about humanitarian military intervention — whether it is worth addressing some conflicts when you know that others continue to simmer, or boil over, at the same time?

This was the case in the 1970s when wars in the Horn of Africa, Uganda, Cambodia and elsewhere killed many hundreds of thousands. It was true in the 1980s when conflict intensified in places like Afghanistan, Angola and Central America. And in the 1990s when the Balkans and Rwanda and parts of West Africa blew up, while Sudan, Somalia and other wars continued.

Has Obama administration gone wobbly on Syria?’

Syria, chemical weapons and the United States. If nothing else, President Barack Obama last month was emphatic. “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad,” Obama declared at the National Defense University in early December, “….The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is…totally unacceptable….[T]here will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

But what a difference a New Year makes. At a January 10 news conference, the administration’s senior security officials, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff head Martin E. Dempsey, recoiled: Consequences won’t involve the Pentagon. Better wait to secure the arsenal after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls, Panetta said. Dempsey stated: “Preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable.” The result, as Panetta explained: “We’re not working on options that involve boots on the ground.”

Assad must have smiled. Washington had gone wobbly on chemical weapons. With the deterrent value of the president’s remarks in question – and one unconfirmed report that Syria used a chemical agent in Homs on December 23 – the chemical specter remains. This raises the key question: Would Obama really stand by if the Syrian government gassed thousands of its citizens?

Washington’s next steps on Syria

The United States has officially recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It has also designated al Qaeda in Iraq-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which often leads the fighting effort in Syria, as a terrorist organization, thus making it illegal for anyone to buy it even a cup of tea. This double-barreled political action, after months of hesitation, is intended to convey the message that Washington supports the relative moderates of the Syrian opposition wholeheartedly but wants to exclude from its ranks Sunni extremists.

The trouble is both moves come late in the game. At this point, U.S. influence may not be sufficient to accomplish the objectives.

A lot depends on the Syrians themselves. Most Syrians do not want to see sectarian slaughter following the current civil war. The question is whether they will be willing and able to restrain the Sunni extremists in their midst. It will take courage and commitment for today’s revolutionaries to speak up and protect Alawites, Christians, Druze and Shia who are suspected of supporting the Assad regime. Mass atrocity in the aftermath of political upheaval is more the rule than the exception. There is little sign that the international community will be able to mount a serious protection effort.

Obama faces only hard choices in Mideast

The conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that a newly empowered president, freed from the political constraints of reelection, will have more discretion, drive and determination to take on the Middle East’s most intractable problems.

Don’t believe it. This looks a lot more compelling on paper than in practice. Should President Barack Obama be tempted to embrace it, he may well find himself on the short end of the legacy stick.

Once again many on the left are summoning up the spirit of Obama unchained. Those who saw a new kind of American president in the Middle East – tough on Israel; sensitive to the Islamists and the Arabs (see his March 2010 Cairo speech), and bent on engaging the world in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect – hope for his return.

Mideast’s WMD ‘red line’ gauntlet

“Red lines” are all the rage this year. Even as the swirl of Middle East headlines focus on Gaza and Egyptian politics, the region remains under two “red lines.” If Iran and Syria, respectively, cross the nuclear and chemical weapons thresholds, it would generate a strong, if undefined, Israeli and American response.

Washington’s red line, however, lays bare another issue: Should the executive branch have carte blanche to commit the country to military action? Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton Monday appeared to suggest so. She declared, in public remarks in Prague, that the Syrian government’s use of its chemical arsenal would be a “red line” for Washington to act.* Or is it time for Congress to make its own evaluation before the country again turns to the gun?

Let’s first recall how the red lines emerged (one literally) and why the line issued against Syria is now most concerning.

Mideast’s dynamic opportunity for peace

The Arab world may be in turmoil, but its leaders actually need an enduring peace—now in Gaza and long-term with Israel—because regimes across the region are vulnerable as never before.

Whether they like it or not, that’s true for newly elected Islamists. And old-order autocrats need resolution to prevent protests at home from turning against them.

The challenge for Washington is taking advantage of the vulnerability to work with the new political roster — including players it doesn’t know all that well. The tectonic political shift over the past two years offers a dynamic opportunity.

Romney’s big chance with Jewish voters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the Monday foreign policy debate, should play to the Jewish TV audience like he was the star of a Borscht Belt revue.

Romney has a tempting assortment of issues he can tap to frame President Barack Obama as a leader whose policies are perilous for Israel. He can use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Egypt and even Syria to make a case that Obama’s policies are wrong for the Jewish state.

Given the tenuous state of relations between Israel and the United States, it’s surprising that, according to a recent American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish opinion, 61 percent approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israeli relations, while 39 percent disapprove. Those are numbers Romney needs to change Monday night.

Syria as dress rehearsal: Securing WMD in midst of civil war

As Syria’s civil war spirals into mounting violence, the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile is generating increased anxiety throughout the Middle East and beyond.  Taking precautionary measures, the United States has reportedly placed 150 “planners and other specialists” in Jordan to work on contingencies — including the chemical weapons threat.

As odd as it may seem, however, we are lucky that Syria’s chemical stockpile marks Damascus’s most serious weapons of mass destruction risk.  Had Israel not bombed the country’s weapons reactor in 2007, the embattled nation — and the rest of us – could have been staring at the globe’s first civil war with a nuclear dimension.

Consider the domestic and international panic that could ensue if rebel factions, terrorists, government insiders or looters in civil war got control of nuclear weapons or their feedstock, or strike at a nuclear reactor to release radioactive contents.  Yet this is what we could indeed face if any one of three relatively unstable countries with nuclear infrastructures–Pakistan, North Korea or Iran– were to suffer the violent political disintegration we see in Syria today.  Equally disturbing — the international community does not have a reliable plan to cope.

The dying Russian bear strikes again

Vladimir Putin sounded like the saber-rattler of old last week, when he accused the so-called historical West of trying to claw back its waning economic influence by waging “missile-bomb diplomacy” and “unilateral moves in violation of international law.” His stonewalling continued as he again refused to support further action on the Syrian crisis: Kofi Annan was greeted in Moscow this week with accusations of Western “blackmail,” and left without Russian backing for a future U.N. vote to sanction Syria. Putin even seems to be losing interest in the niceties of being a foreign leader, telling fellow G8 members, future Chinese premier Xi Jinping, and the Olympic opening ceremony that he was “too busy” to meet with them.

Only two months after its end, Dmitry Medvedev’s conciliatory presidency seems a distant memory. The ruling United Russia party (of which he is the ostensible chair) has passed a slew of authoritarian laws rolling back his liberal reforms. The most recent of these reintroduces criminal penalties for libel only a little more than half a year after they were dropped on Medvedev’s personal initiative.

Diplomats fear Putin’s return to the Kremlin means the “reset” of relations with the West under Medvedev will be lost along with it. During his election campaign, Putin accused Hillary Clinton of organizing anti-government protests. His party recently passed a law declaring any NGO that receives funding from outside Russia a “foreign agent.”