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Posts tagged ‘Bashar al-Assad’

Demonstrating Resolve, the Roundabout Way

By Taylor Marvin

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

How can the United States and its European allies show Vladimir Putin that their warnings against further Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine are serious? New America Foundation president, Princeton professor, and former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that President Obama must “demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations” by striking the regime of murderous Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. “The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow,” Slaughter writes, by demonstrating American resolve and causing Putin to reconsider the credibility of American threats. Limited strikes in Syria — she specifically suggests destroying the Syrian government’s fixed-wing aircraft — “might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.”

Daniel Larison rejects Slaughter’s logic, writing that “it makes absolutely no sense to argue that bombing a Russian client in one place will change Russian behavior in another place for the better.” In fact, Larison and the National Interest’s Robert Golan-Vilella note, Slaughter’s argument has already been tested: the Obama administration already used forced to punish an authoritarian ruler massacring his own people, in Libya. Admittedly Syria is a Russian client in a way that Gaddafi’s Libya was not, but the point stands: if using force in Libya did not send a strong message about US resolve, would additional military intervention in Syria marginally strengthen the cumulative evidence of the Obama administration’s willingness to use force to the point that Putin would have never annexed Crimea, or — if the strikes were carried out now, as Slaughter proposes — suddenly stand down?

Of course not. The lesson the world drew from the war in Libya is not that the United States and its allies would use force in all circumstances, but instead that the United States and its allies would use force in very specific ones. In Libya organized rebel forces were ready to be the ground army airpower would support, Libya did not have an Iranian ally that could match intervention with asymmetric retaliation, and there was little risk of downed aircraft and dead pilots. In Syria, none of these conditions hold, and similar benchmarks certainly don’t hold in Ukraine.

Larison further writes that “nothing would be more useful for Moscow as a matter of propaganda than to have the U.S. illegally attacking another country.” This is also true. Arguments that failing to punish Russia will usher in a future of frequent great power aggression are often met with the counterargument of, well, this future is just the recent past, and Americans only notice and object to sovereignty violations when it’s not them doing the violating. While sovereignty and non-interference concerns are not in and of themselves a reason to dismiss hitting the Assad regime, advocates of intervention in Syria should acknowledge that it would strength Putin’s diplomatic position as well as weaken it. While global opinion has been generally against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, this opposition has not been as strident as the US and Europeans would have hoped. If strikes in Syria allowed a ‘well, both sides do it’ thought to take root, many leaders would find themselves with a convenient excuse to avoid the diplomatic and political risk of meaningfully punishing Russian aggression.

But ultimately the entire discussion is silly. Strikes in Syria can only be expected to influence Moscow’s calculus if they prompt a reassessment of the punishment Russia could face for further action. American resolve has no bearing on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, because everyone — Obama, the EU, Putin, the Ukrainians, everybody — knows that the United States is not going to go to war or even meaningfully threaten war with a major nuclear power. Striking Syria as a proxy demonstration of American resolve just makes this more obvious. If America is so committed to facing down Putin in eastern Ukraine, why is it striking Syria then? Because the United States cannot credibly threaten to use military force against Russia. The only coercion that is on the table is diplomatic efforts, which striking the Assad regime has at best a negative relation to. It’s akin to punching the skinny guy next to the hulking bar-fighter you’re trying to intimidate, just to show you’re serious.

I don’t think it is, as Danny Hirschel-Burns said on Twitter, surprising that a former “senior US policymaker would have such a simplistic view of credibility” because this really isn’t an argument about Ukraine at all. Anne-Marie Slaughter has favored military intervention in Syria for years, endorsing in January 2012 intervention under the responsibility to protect doctrine should conditions be favorable and calling for unilateral limited military efforts to establish safe-zones in February 2012. Maybe, given the enormous human suffering in Syria over the last two years, the world should have followed Slaughter’s advice — reading 2012 Syria op-eds in 2014 is deeply sorrowful — but in any case it is obvious now that this military intervention is not coming. Citing strikes in Syria as a useful part of the Western toolkit in Ukraine is just, in my mind, a way of keeping the possibility of intervention in the public eye. The crisis in Ukraine is simply an excuse to keep that conversation going.

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Keeping Up Appearances in Damascus

NASA photo, via the Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA photo, via the Marshall Space Flight Center.

By Taylor Marvin

The Syrian government today announced plans to create a national space agency, supposedly aimed at scientific research. The announcement was met with disbelief among many commentators. Why would the Assad government, which is locked a deadly war that threatens the regime’s survival, devote resources to a space program? Perhaps more importantly, how could a government busily engaged in slaughtering its own citizens have any concern for space research at all?

It’s possible that the vague Syrian “space program” is a cover for rocket and missile research, as the inherent dual-use nature of civil rocket development programs make them useful for concealing military research. However, given the severe resource constraints facing the embattled Assad regime, I’d guess that this program will never return much actual research, military or otherwise. Instead, it appears to be another entry in the series of bizarrely banal announcements by the regime, following Bashar al-Assad’s praise for South African leader Nelson Mandela last December and the regime’s 2012 pledge to restrict genetically-modified foods to protect public health.

Like these previous announcements, grand proposals for a Syrian national space agency are unsurprising. To win the war the Assad regime needs to project strength, whether this strength is illusionary or otherwise. For the Assad regime to defeat the rebel insurgency it must convince both rebels and fence-sitting Syrians that the government’s eventual victory is assured, and there’s no point in resisting if the regime is going to win anyway — the “minds” side of the famous phrase. High-profile shows of strength also serve to discourage foreign donors from costly support for the rebels, whether in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, or the West. Just as a farcical commitment to diplomacy means benefiting from the implicit international acknowledgement of the Assad government’s sovereign role, high-profile shows of normalcy and stability are a valuable strategy.

The problem is that relevant shows of strength — like defeating rebel forces or capturing cities — are militarily difficult to achieve. So the Assad regime strives to project an illusion of normalcy that signals to both Syrians and the outside world that it is secure and confident. Countries that are locked in stalemated civil wars do not announce space programs. The Assad regime wants to show the outside world that it is confident of its prosperous future — a future that requires winning the war — so it does the opposite. As long as a space program doesn’t consume resources that could be better, from the regime’s perspective, devoted to the military, press announcements and disbelief among outside commentators is a small price to pay for keeping up appearances.

Talks, and the Killing That Won’t Stop

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

The killing in Syria appears to be intensifying. Late last year Bashar al-Assad’s military forces stepped up an arial bombing campaign that included an intense assault on the rebel-held city of Aleppo. Following regime forces’ gains in the city, in early February rebels announced a new offensive, which was in turn was followed by further regime bombardment. The Syrian military’s preferred aircraft weapons appear to be barrel bombs, unguided improvised explosives that indiscriminately kill civilians and were recently termed ‘barbarous’ by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The death toll from the regime’s offensive has been severe. In recent remarks, UN Ambassador Samantha Power noted that despite the ongoing UN-backed peace talks in Switzerland, the current rate of killing is unprecedented. “Reportedly, nearly 5000 people have been killed just since the Geneva II talks began,” Power stated. “That is the most concentrated period of killing in the entire duration of the conflict – that’s just in the last three weeks – so it is not enough for us to stand here and say there has been no progress, which there hasn’t, we must recognize and state very forcefully that the situation has gotten worst, and is getting worst.”

In a recent post at Political Violence at a GlanceAllison Beth Hodgkins makes the interesting argument that these two events — the deadlocked Geneva II conference and the Assad regime’s destructive bombing campaign — may not be a coincidence. By indiscriminately bombing Syrian cities at the same time it is obstinately ready to negotiate, the Assad regime is sending a clear message to rebels that foreign military intervention is not forthcoming while also emphasizing that it, not the disunited insurgency, remains the sovereign voice of Syria.

It is entirely possible that Assad’s bombing campaign is intended to send a message to both the rebels and the international community. But at the very least it demonstrates that Assad does not see the negotiations as any constraint on its military strategy. Assad seeks to demonstrate to both uncommitted Syrians and the outside world that his forces cannot be militarily defeated, that the rebellion will not be able to dislodge the regime from its western heartland, and that it is only a matter of time before he takes back the entire country. By carrying out an indiscriminately destructive, resolve-demonstrating military strategy the regime emphasizes that the eventual outcome of the conflict will be on its, not the opposition’s, terms, and that a prospective settlement that does not included Bashar al-Assad’s continued presence at the head of Syria’s government is a non-starter — “please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it,” in the words of Syria’s deputy foreign minister.

Assad can afford this brutality because he knows that western countries no longer have any leverage over him. The very public opposition to the Obama, Cameron, and Hollande governments’ favored airstrikes proposed in the wake of the 2013 chemical weapons attacks revealed just how unpopular and politically painful even a limited military intervention in Syria would be. The Assad regime obviously crossed the red line prohibiting chemical weapons use, and the US and France ultimately settled for a toothless, Russian-brokered deal that appears unlikely to actually result in the destruction of most of the regime’s chemical weapons, and is anyway irrelevant to the wider war. While limited strikes were unlikely to have meaningfully alter the course of the Syrian war — and Obama’s red line was always an unwise policy, given the administration’s unwillingness to bind itself to serious intervention in the conflict should the red line be violated — if the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use did not bring serious consequences, bombarding cities and starving civilians will not either. Assad knows this, and the international community does as well.

Assad and the Illusion of Normalcy

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

At the Washington Post’s “Worldviews” blog, Loveday Morris flags a statement by Bashar al-Assad praising the recently deceased Nelson Mandela. “His history of struggle has become an inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world,” Assad stated, “in the expectation that oppressors and aggressors will learn the lesson that in the end it is they who are the losers.”

Morris notes that the praise was unsurprisingly “greeted with derision from opposition activists and commentators,” angered by the hypocrisy of Assad’s apparent admiration for the icon of nonviolent resistance. The National Interest’s Ashley Frohwein questions whether “Assad is just saying this stuff for fun, like some kind of sick joke.”

But there’s nothing particularly surprising about Assad’s praise for Mandela. The Assad regime’s potential path to victory in the Syrian civil war requires it to constantly show confidence that it will win. In addition to vowing that it will never surrender, by dismissing the country’s massive armed rebellion as simply “terrorists” and preserving an illusion of normalcy Assad reassures his domestic supporters and fence-sitters that he is winning, discouraging defection. To Syrians inclined to label the opposition terrorists, there really isn’t even any glaring cognitive dissonance in Assad’s praise for the South African leader.

Of course, this signal is not particularly convincing because it is not costly — that is, Assad can feign normalcy whether he is winning or not — but this non-costly nature means there’s no reason not to engage in this particular strategy either.

This is not the first instance of the Assad government pursuing incongruously-banal behavior. In October 2012 it passed a law regulating genetically modified agricultural products; I noted the law’s possible signaling role at the time. The Syrian government-owned SANA news agency’s homepage is filled with, in addition to references to “Wahhabi terrorism”, commonplace human interest stories seemingly out of place in a country wracked by civil war.

A normal government would mark Nelson Mandela’s death by praising the famed Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Assad wishes his regime to be perceived by both domestic and international audiences as a normal government, so he praises Mandela as well.

Sometimes, Intentions Don’t Matter

By Taylor Marvin

To what degree does the Obama administration seek to end  the war in Syria? Obviously, on some level it wants the killing to stop — the administration is not staffed by monsters, after all — but it is similarly clear that very few policymakers within the US government are willing to commit the military resources needed to actually end the war. Even when the administration’s stated prohibition on chemical weapons use appeared to bind it to a limited intervention, the military options actually under consideration were so limited that no one even pretended that they would have any real chance of damaging the Assad regime enough to halt the killing.

The Obama administration has, of course, contributed limited rhetorical, financial, training, and diplomatic support to the opposition over the now nearly-three year civil war. Some have argued that this support is part of a wider administration policy designed to lure Iran, which supports the Assad regime, and al Qaeda, associated with some of the more extremist factions of the anti-Assad insurgency, into a costly struggle that saps both sides’ strengths. This plan, so the argument goes, explains the Obama administrations middling actions over the course of the war. From the start of the conflict Obama has publicly supported the Syrian opposition but refused to provide them with the heavy weaponry or direct US military support that would allow anti-Assad forces to definitively win the war, ensuring that the conflict dragged on long enough to prompt the direct involvement of both Iranian-affiliated and Islamist groups. When Obama’s own rhetorical “red line” apparently bound him to directly striking Assad after the regime’s August 2013 chemical weapons usage, the administration instead pursued a diplomatic agreement with the regime and its Russian allies that again avoided direct intervention, a win-win-win for Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Assad that gave the regime further “time to kill more people with conventional weapons,” according to one opposition activist. The Obama administration’s limited support for the opposition, again so the argument goes, is encouraging a long fight between two US enemies at the costs of over a hundred thousand Syrian lives.

The first problem with this explanation for the administration’s Syria policy is that it is not guaranteed to actually weaken Islamists fighters and Iran. Al Qaeda and wider Islamist militancy are a decentralized movement — there’s no reason to think that encouraging al Qaeda-affiliated groups to fight in Syria will weaken them in, say, the Sahel or Pakistan. While there is some validity to the argument that the conflict in Syria is soaking up funds from Islamist donors that would otherwise go to violent groups targeting the US and its allies, there is again no reason to think that this funding is fixed at a constant level and that Syrian rebels’ financial gains come at the cost of other Islamist militants. Similarly, it is wrong to assume that combat necessarily weakens armed groups. One of the reasons that Syria’s Islamist rebels have outcompeted their secular or moderate peers — in addition to their established fundraising networks and the natural tendency for extremist groups to attract the most popular support in an increasingly-violent and sectarian conflict — is their ability to leverage the combat experience similar groups gained in the Iraq war. Militant organizations in combat can gain experience and attract recruits, publicity, and funding that those not fighting do not. It is not unreasonable to expect that no matter who “wins” the war in Syria (whether victory for either side is still a possible outcome is another question) the conflict will produce a cadre of experienced, radicalized fighters who will appear in subsequent Middle Eastern conflicts.

This same logic applies to the Assad regime’s Iranian backers. Even before the recent warming in US-Iranian relations, hopes of drawing the Islamic Republic into a costly proxy war in Syria was an uncertain policy, because involvement such a conflict would politically empower the typically hardline actors responsible for implementing the Iranian involvement in the war. Additionally, while Iran’s support for the Assad regime has made it unpopular in much of the Arab world and reportedly drawn Saudi backing for Iranian Salafist insurgents, the ultimate cost of its involvement in Syria is small compared to its rivalry with the Gulf States and the international sanctions it currently endures. While Iran is directly involved in the Syrian war, this involvement’s marginal gains for the United States are not necessarily worth the admittedly-unclear marginal political empowerment it implies for Iranian hardliners.

Secondly, it is important to remember that to an external observer an Obama administration seeking to deliberately prolong the Syrian civil war is indistinguishable from an administration horrified at the Assad regime’s brutality and desperate to see the dictator deposed, but deeply wary of the fractured and radicalized opposition, fearful of a post-Assad power vacuum, and aware of just how unpopular direct US military involvement in Syria would be. While a long war in Syria may not necessarily weaken Iran and militant Islam, it is also true that at this point the Obama administration has no real interest in Assad’s fall beyond its apparently-genuine disgust with the humanitarian cost of the war. The open-ended nature of the Syrian war is bad for everyone — it encourages radicalization among its participants, is establishing networks that will endure beyond the end of the conflict, and increases the likelihood that Syria will no longer be a viable state at the war’s closure. But the consequences of the Assad regime’s fall are terrible as well, and are growing worse as the conflict drags on; the United States is understandably reluctant to play a role in a rebel victory that would more likely than not culminate in mass atrocities against the regime’s Alawite power base.

Given these conflicting goals, whether or not a grand plan to bleed al Qaeda and Iran in Syria is necessary to explain the administration’s Syria policy is irrelevant. As Daniel Drezner, who has previously argued in favor of this realpolitik theory, noted last month citing reporting by the New York Times, many of Obama’s advisors have articulated “a rationale for why continued conflict might not be a bad thing.” But even if Obama finds this argument convincing, what further action would it lead him to do? The President is obviously extremely reluctant to directly intervene in Syria. After the regime’s chemical weapons use and as more extreme rebel groups gained influence and territory at the expense of moderates, the Obama administration diplomatically avoided the strikes many believed that it had bound itself to in a diplomatic accord that arguably strengthens the regime — a policy that can be read as the actions of either administration types.

The two casual logics of a reluctant or realpolitikal administration “complement rather than contradict each other”, Drezner writes. Does this extend the war? Yes. But it extends it no more than any other low commitment action the US would be realistically willing to consider.

The US has very little influence over the Syrian war. Obama clearly feels morally bound to condemn the Assad regime and at least nominally support the more moderate opposition factions. But policies aimed at ending the war but hampered by the United States’ unwillingness to commit itself are not very different from policies designed to lengthen the war.

Who’s Fence-Sitting in Syria?

By Taylor Marvin

Writing at Political Violence @ a Glance, Barbara F. Walter poses an interesting puzzle (note: I contribute to PVG). Citing Eli Berman, Walter outlines a problem facing Syria’s urban Sunni Muslim population living along the country’s western strip that is for the most part controlled by the regime. These Sunnis are understood to be the “swing voters” in Syria’s civil war; while they could benefit from a complete rebel victory bringing a new regime dominated by Sunni Muslims to power, they have also historically benefited from the stability enforced by the Assad family’s Alawite Muslim-dominated government. In Berman’s view these urban Sunnis are waiting to see who appears likely to win the war; when this information is revealed they will then side with the likely victor.

Many Syrians, especially urban Sunnis, are reluctant to choose sides in the Syrian war. In a January New York Times piece Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad related the dilemma of a Damascus Sunni Muslim civil servant quietly pondering “his own private endgame, toying with defecting to the rebels, yet clinging to his post, increasingly sure there are no fighters worth joining.” However, it is worth noting that Berman’s argument that Syrian “swing voters” will decide the war is not universally accepted; an April 2013 Rand report claimed that “the remaining fence-sitters inside Syria are not in a position to tip the military balance” (it is also worth noting that elements of this report have been passed by events since its publication).

However, Walter has a problem with this logic, which presumes that Syria’s urban Sunnis have the option of laying low and emerging from the war in good condition. What if they are instead locked in a “lose-lose” situation? A rebel victory would subject these well-educated urban moderates to a new government dominated by Islamist extremists, an outcome not in their interests. But if Assad should win, these Sunnis could be grouped with their co-sectarians who had rebelled against the government and targeted for reprisals.

Source: The Economist.

Source: The Economist.

I think this interaction is more complex. While Syria’s urban Sunnis may face a lose-lose situation now, in 2011 it was plausible to suspect that a rebel victory could lead to a Sunni-dominated but largely secular government; today, as Islamist rebels appear more and more ascendant within the rebel movement, this is much less likely. Not only are today’s rebels more dominated by jihadists, the inability of the rebel movement to coalesce into an operationally-unified force and frequent incidents of rebel infighting in the three-sided civil war make further civil war in the aftermath of an Assad regime defeat a very real possibility. If we accept that Syria’s western urban Sunnis have for the most part so-far declined to definitively chose sides — a key assumption of the “swing voter” theory and one that appears to be true — then the fact that the outcome of a rebel victory appear to be growing less amenable to their interests suggests that they will continue to fence-sit.

The most obvious answer is that Walter’s logic is correct, and there is no puzzle at all: Syria’s urban Sunnis have, for the most part, already made their choice because in the context of the Syrian civil war their fence-sitting for all practical purposes serves the regime. While contested by the rebels, large cities like Damascus, Homs, and Hama all lie within the western strip held by the regime, which is centered on the country’s smaller Alawite-dominated coastal strip that is the Assad regime’s heartland. A large-scale rebellion by this region’s Sunnis would be disastrous for the regime, depriving it of its base, threatening its Alawite backers, and eating up military resources that could otherwise be employed in the hinterland and central Euphrates valley that for the most part is held by the rebels. If the regime loses control of this region its ability to eventually win the war — or, more importantly in the context of a civil war with fence-sitters, ability to appear likely to win the war — would be cast into much greater doubt. Barring situations where western villages are forced to choose, fence-sitting can still be considered valuable for the regime.

If the Anti-CW Norm Should Be Enforced, Unauthorized Use Matters

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Yesterday at Political Violence @ a Glance I posted a brief piece summarizing President Obama’s Tuesday speech on Syria, in which he called on Congress to delay a decision on whether to strike the Assad regime in favor of a potential diplomatic solution that would, with Russian support, see Assad give up his chemical weapons under international supervision. Commentators’ reaction to the diplomatic initiative was mixed. On the one hand, it allows Obama to avoid either the unpopular airstrikes that his previous ill-advised red line had rhetorically committed him to or an unprecedented rejection of his plan in Congress. If the initiative succeeds it will also strengthen the international norm against chemical weapons use much more effectively than limited, internationally unpopular, and likely irrelevant airstrikes. However, it remains unclear if the diplomatic plan will succeed, effectively cataloging and destroying Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria’s chaotic civil war looks to be an extremely difficult and risky task requiring extensive international commitment, and the plan does nothing to end the war that has already killed over 100,000 people and appears to be degenerating into a bloody three-sided stalemate.

In contrast to Noah Schachtman and Colum Lynch’s worries that cooperating with the Assad regime on chemical weapons legitimizes it, Max Fisher writes today that it will not — while the Obama administration has maintained that “Assad must go” since the civil war’s inception, “Obama never actually sought to remove Assad from power against his will and has consistently acknowledged him as Syria’s head of state.” While this is true, it’s also clear that the lesson that chemical weapons use will at most result in a diplomatic effort to peacefully destroy these weapons and not airstrikes is not an encouraging one for Syria’s rebels, regardless of the potential airstrikes’ wisdom.

In his excellent piece on how Obama’s speech succeeded and failed, Kevin Lees highlights an important observation: Obama never definitively established that Assad ordered the Ghouta gas attack:

“Whatever the US government knows (or thinks it knows) about the Assad regime’s fault for the attack on August 21, it’s certainly been incredibly bashful about sharing it with the rest of us.  Middle Eastern armies often distribute gas masks to their troops, and the Syrian army is firing a great number of rockets into a great many neighborhoods these days.  That alone tells us nothing — it’s certainly information that can supplement the case for Assad’s blame, but it’s ultimately circumstantial.”

Claims that the rebels and not the regime were responsible for the August 21 attack that killed at the least hundreds of people, highlighted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his op-ed in today’s New York Timesare not credible. As Erica Chenoweth and Human Rights Watch both noted today, international investigation overwhelmingly holds the regime, not opposition, culpable for the August 21 attack. But the Obama administration’s reluctance to draw a direct line between Assad and the attack doesn’t mean that there’s any real doubt what player was responsible. Most obviously, it’s possible that the Obama administration simply doesn’t want to reveal in detail its sources, for any number of reasons. Secondly, as Lees notes, it’s possible that a rogue regime commander or garbled orders were responsible. As I wrote in May, this loss of control is a more pertinent danger associated with chemical weapons than other strategic arms. Since chemical weapons are typically battlefield tactical weapons mounted on limited-range delivery platforms, they must be distributed to the battlefield before use. This gives local commanders direct control over chemical weapons, and it is possible that Assad did not directly order their use — either a local commander or regime subordinate could have acted on their own initiative, misunderstood orders, or believed Assad wished the attack launched when he did not. It is similarly possible, as recent reporting suggests, that the attack was either launched on an angry whim by Assad or was more lethal than intended.

But even if the August 21 attack was due to a loss of control over the regime’s chemical weapons or operational mistake and not directly ordered by Assad in a manner the US can document, it is unclear in my mind whether this should have any bearing on the decision to punish — whether diplomatically or otherwise — the regime. Leaders understand that distributing chemical munitions to military units in war zones is a risky delegation of the authority to actually use them. Ultimately it is this decision, not the act of actually pushing the button that launches a rocket or drops a bomb, that bears the responsibility for chemical attacks. If the goal of punishing chemical weapons use is to preserve the anti-CW norm — and this is a big if — then that is the decision that should be punished. Loss of control or operational mistakes ar not an excuse.

Miltary Defections, Civil Resistance, and Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Erica Chenoweth has an excellent piece at Waging Nonviolence on how military defections can hamper, not help, civil resistance movements. In Egypt, collaboration between the military and anti-Morsi organizers contributed to the country’s recent coup — and uncertain future of democracy. Military defections vary in intensity, Chenoweth writes, from “full defection” to “partial defection,” and reluctance to follow orders running from “shirking” to “outright disobedience.” The challenge is preventing defections from allowing military elites to co-opt civil resistance movements, as the Egyptian military has done to preserve its privileges. If civil resistance organizers cannot retain their leadership positions in the aftermath of military defections to their cause, movements run the risk of leading to civil war or military juntas. While military defections can be important contributions to the success of civil resistance movements, organizers should “see that security forces have their own interests, and they can easily manipulate the movement to suit their own purposes in ways that undermine the movement’s own agenda.”

In Syria, Chenoweth notes, military defectors brought their skills and equipment into a previously non-violent movement, contributing to its shift into a civil war:

“In the cases of Libya and Syria, nonviolent action led to defections among the armed forces early on in the conflicts. However, the defectors took their weapons with them, regrouped as armed challengers, and essentially undermined and supplanted nonviolent campaigns by initiating armed struggle.”

The sectarian aspects of the Syrian conflict have contributed to this dynamic. While firm supporters of the Assad regime dominated the pre-war Syrian military leadership, they were not its entirety, as high-level military defections have shown. However, by self-selecting out of the military defectors have left a unified force whose loyalty the regime can count on. As Chenoweth wrote last year, “although many conflict scholars view defections as a sign of regime weakness, Assad may see it as a process of voluntary purging.” According “senior official” in Damascus quoted in a May 2013 Crisis Group interview, defections have strengthened the military they leave behind:

“Defections among army ranks have been numerous. We estimate that tens of thousands switched sides. But that meant they left behind the more reliable and motivated troops. In my view, defections are the single most important factor in explaining subsequent army cohesion”

Sectarian divides contribute to this selection dynamic: those who remain in the regime’s military are constantly told that the war is a sectarian conflict pitting Alawites and Shiites against Syria’s Sunni majority, with no option other than victory — ‘Sunnis fight out of fear and Alawites out of conviction,’ in the words of one regime defector.

In addition to contributing to the Syrian protest movements transformation into a military conflict, had these defections no occurred Assad likely would have been constrained by the uncertain loyalty of the armed forces overall. But defections have left Assad with a smaller but more dedicated military whose existence is tied to that of the regime. This information has allowed Assad to avoid the fear that unrestrained violence would lead to further defections — indeed, defections have significantly fallen off since the second half of 2012 (though not halted), suggesting that either opposition sympathizers within the military are now rarer or that fence-sitters are no longer prepared to bargain on the conflict’s outcome. While the Syrian military was never a non-sectarian actor defections have shaped it into a body unlikely to survive the fall of the regime, and thus much more closely associated with it.

Anyway, a really interesting take. Read the whole thing.

Syria, Hindsight, and Difficult Choices

By Taylor Marvin

As I have before, today I wrote the weekly discussion question feature at Political Violence @ a Glance: given what we know today about the costs of the Syrian conflict, imagine you could advise President Obama at the outset of the conflict. What would your advice be? How would this differ from the policy options you favor today?

I think this is an interesting question, and one I can offer no real answer too. If policymakers in 2011 knew the Syrian war would eventually kill at least 100,000 people, there would likely have been a much stronger push for an international intervention to stop the violence. But today, with neither side apparently capable of gaining control over the entire country, it appears likely that the war will kill many more people before it is over, and there is still little real international desire to intervene.

Alternatively, the optimal strategies for ending the violence could have shifted between 2011 and now. It’s arguable that opportunities for a diplomatic solution existed then, before the conflict radicalized into the general sectarian war it increasingly resembles today. But then again, it’s very unlikely that the Assad government and its sectarian power base would have ever accepted any form of power-sharing agreement. Similarly, it is also arguable that arming the rebels with the heavy weapons necessary to make them competitive with regime forces was more politically feasible early in the conflict, before the ideological fracture of the opposition and overt entry of al Qaeda, Iran, and Hezbollah into the conflict. The same logic applies to an international military intervention — but again, the Syrian opposition never appeared to be a united force able to serve as a military partner to Western airpower as in Libya.

Thoughts?

Why the Broken Red Line Didn’t Force the Administration’s Hand in Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Last week the Obama administration decided to expand the “scope and scale” of American assistance to the Syria opposition and begin arming rebel forces. Concluding that the Bashar al-Assad regime had indeed violated the “red line” prohibiting the use of chemical weapons against rebel forces, the administration announced Thursday that it would begin supplying the Syrian rebels with small arms and ammunition, though the White House maintains it has no interest in imposing a no-fly zone at this time. While reporting from this April suggested that the administration was slowly moving towards a consensus in favor of arming the rebels, the news still comes as a major shift in President Obama’s Syria policy.

In a statement Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes framed the administration’s decision as a response to the Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons use, arguing that “while the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades.”

However, its rhetoric aside it is difficult to argue that Obama was compelled to act by Assad’s apparent breaking of the international red line prohibiting chemical weapons use. Instead, the administration’s decision to arm the rebels can only be understood as a deliberate choice.

First, as many others have argued, there is no compelling reason why the murder of 100 to 150 Syrians by chemical weapons demand international restitution more than nearly a hundred thousand by conventional means. But despite arguments that chemical weapons are uniquely terrible it is incorrect to claim, as Rhodes does, that strong norms against chemical arms use have existed for decades and requires enforcement. Instead, it’s more accurate to say that chemical arms — which are difficult to handle, subject to dispersal by weather conditions, often just as likely to incapacitate friendly troops as the enemy, and widely stigmatized – are rarely used because of their few practical battlefield uses and reputation costs, rather than any enforced international norm. Indeed, the United States has turned a blind eye to chemical weapons use when it is politically convenient, ignoring Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War and only nominally punishing his chemical massacres of Kurdish civilians decades later. Given that the norm against chemical weapons use is strong in spite of, not due to, international enforcement efforts and few leaders have incentives to use chemical arms anyway, it is unlikely that Obama administration officials were compelled by the belief that the norm against chemical weapons needed to be upheld.

Secondly, it is similarly unlikely that the administration was forced to act by its previous rhetoric. Red lines sanctioning chemical weapons use are inherently fuzzy. Unlike, say, nuclear weapons, there is nothing inherently intolerable about chemical weapons use. If Assad had used chemical weapons to kill thousands of civilians in a single, high-profile attack, the United States would likely have been compelled to act. However, Assad did not; instead, he apparently used chemical weapons in limited, isolated attacks. Indeed, the fact that it took the US government nearly two months to officially verify his use of chemical weapons is indicative of just how limited this use was. Perhaps Assad’s limited use of chemical weapons suggests that he lost political control over them rather than ordering their use, or that he was deliberately testing the strength of the international red line. Whatever the reason, though, this inherent fuzziness made it difficult for the Obama administration to issue an obviously credible red line prohibiting any specific degree of chemical weapons use, and it similarly could have ignored Assad’s limited provocation if it really wanted to.

Third, the Obama administration had deliberately avoided binding itself to act if Assad did violate the red line. Red lines often suffer from a fundamental credibility problems, because their targets can often not distinguish a credible threat from a bluff. Since leaders rarely like being forced into unpopular wars, red lines work best when the actor issuing the threat constructs mechanisms to force their future self to respond if their bluff is called. However, the administration had used shifting semantics and ambiguities about what the red line actually entails to avoid rhetorically binding himself to action, suggesting that Obama wished to avoid an iron-clad public commitment he might later regret — exactly the kind of commitment device he’d value if Obama valued credibility over flexibility.

All these factors suggest that, contrary to its own rhetoric, the Obama administration is not being forced into the Syrian conflict. Despite the administration’s red line, President Obama could have avoided further intervention in the conflict if he truly wished to. Arming the rebels is growing less, not more, popular among Americans, and Obama is unlikely to face any significant domestic political costs for inaction. Finally, it is immediately obvious that the Obama administration is doing the least it can to punish the Assad regime’s transgressions. Small arms supplies are unlikely to turn the tide in the rebels’ favor, and if anything the Obama administration’s present actions send a reassuring signal to potential human rights violators: as long as you abstain from chemical weapons the international community tolerates massacres, and even if you do use chemical arms, it will only half-heartedly begin arming your enemies. As Sara Bjerg Moller recently wrote, “rather than redeem American credibility, the lesson other states are likely to draw is that (at least in the short term) they can get away with crossing well-established red lines while the US government conducts a multi-month internal policy debate on what to do next.”

While the Obama administration’s decision to begin arming Syrian rebels is unlikely to quickly end the conflict, it is a major shift in Obama’s Syria policy. Despite its public justifications, however, it is a mistake to see the administration’s decision as a forced reaction to Assad’s chemical weapons use. Instead, the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war more decisively than ever before is a deliberate policy choice that reflects his own views on liberal interventionism, the precarious position of the secular opposition, and international responsibilities.