Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: (In Syria) Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better

Perhaps nowhere does this old saying ring as true as in present day Syria. Two weeks ago I wrote about “The Deteriorating Syrian Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis” and since then things have not gotten any better on the ground. However, it seems that Western powers are finally organizing the support that legitimate factions of the Syrian opposition need to present a real threat to the Assad regime without relying on the help of extremist / terrorist organizations:

“Ministers from 11 countries including the United States, European and regional Sunni Muslim powers, held talks that Washington said should commit participants to direct all aid through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, which it hopes can offset the growing power of jihadist rebel forces.”

“The meeting in Qatar brings together ministers of countries that support the anti-Assad rebels – France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Britain and the United States.”

“Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country has been one of the most open backers of the anti-Assad rebels, said that supplying them with weapons was the only way to resolve the conflict.

“Force is necessary to achieve justice. And the provision of weapons is the only way to achieve peace in Syria’s case,” Sheikh Hamad told ministers at the start of the talks.

“We cannot wait due to disagreement among Security Council members over finding a solution to the problem,” he said. He also called on Lebanon’s government to halt intervention by Lebanese factions in the neighboring conflict.”

“‘We won’t get a political solution if Assad and his regime think they can eliminate all legitimate opposition by force, and so we do have to give assistance to that opposition,’ Secretary of State Kerry told reporters before the start of Saturday’s talks.”

“After a series of military offensives by Assad’s troops, including the recapture of a strategic border town two weeks ago, President Barack Obama said the United States would increase military support for the rebels

Two Gulf sources told Reuters on Saturday that Saudi Arabia, which has taken a lead role among Arab opponents of Assad, had also accelerated delivery of advanced weapons to the rebels.

‘In the past week there have been more arrivals of these advanced weapons. They are getting them more frequently,’ one source said, without giving details. Another Gulf source described them as ‘potentially balance-tipping’ supplies.”

One can only hope that this aid is not too little too late, and many questions emerge from the concerted arming of the Supreme Military Council by Western powers: Does the political will exist among the opposition to fill the power vacuum in a sustainable democratic fashion upon Assad’s removal? Would a new governing body protect the rights of minorities, including Alawites, in a post-conflict Syria? What will happen to the extremist factions the opposition once relied on (specifically al-Nursa)? Will these groups attempt to sabotage the Western backed opposition?

Despite all this uncertainty, one thing is clear; the Assad regime has lost all credibility and cannot remain in power / be allowed to run in future Syrian elections (having Assad involved in future elections would inherently distort the democratic process and risk reigniting the sectarian divide). It has also become clear that Russia will continue to honor its military contracts with Damascus, and that Assad has no problem turning the Syrian Civil War into a regional conflict if it helps his prospects:

“U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the meeting of 11 countries in Qatar was a chance to discuss “efforts to increase and coordinate support for the Syrian political and military opposition”. Kerry said Assad had allowed Iranian and Hezbollah fighters “to cross the lines from Lebanon and engage in the fight on the ground”.

“The Assad regime’s response to a legitimate global effort to try to have a peace conference was to in fact militarize the efforts and internationalize (the conflict) and make the region far more dangerous as a consequences,” he said.”

(In the spirit of fairness, the opposition is also guilty of turning the conflict into a regional one by enlisting other countries help–this is a reality of modern warfare especially in Africa and Middle-East where the sectarian / cultural divide–alongside human rights abuses–underpins the majority of conflicts in the region).

“President Michel Suleiman has called on the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah movement to pull its guerrillas out of Syria, saying any further involvement in its neighbor’s civil war would fuel instability in Lebanon.” While coming from the right place, such a plea will ultimately be in vain–you cannot end a  2+ year old Civil War by shaming the fighters, as both sides believe they are fighting for a just cause.

Can arming the rebels really help lead to a peaceful compromise? Honestly, I do not think so–I think the idea of a peaceful political transition in Syria is a pipe-dream. Even in the face of defeat, I do not believe Assad will step down–I think he will go down with the ship. His family has been in power in Syria for over four decades, Assad knows nothing else and probably believes his power in Syria borders on “divine right“. I believe that Western powers are building up the capacity of the Supreme Military Council to keep Assad’s forces busy, as a covert “Gadaffi-style assassination” is planned. This may be an extreme position to take, but it is the only realistic solution that does not involve more civil war, human suffering and regional instability.

Former U.S. general Wesley Clark is more optimistic that arming the opposition can lead to a political transition:

“Mr. Assad knows that Mr. Obama can be surprisingly resolute, as in his approval of drone strikes and the military operation to kill Osama bin Laden. While the United States begins to supply the rebels, there is a crucial opening for talks. Russia or China could recalculate and help lead Syria to a real peace process, as Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, a former Russian prime minister, did in Kosovo in 1999. Iran could emerge from a truce with Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon (and its strong links to Iran) intact.

The formula for diplomacy is clear: a cease-fire agreement; a United Nations presence; departure of foreign fighters; disarmament of Syrian fighters; international supervision of Syria’s military; a peaceful exit for Mr. Assad, his family and key supporters; a transitional government; and plans for a new Syria.

The conflict, and the diplomacy needed to end it, are likely to play out simultaneously. All parties will be recalculating their options and risks, so any assurance Mr. Obama gives Americans that he will limit our engagement would reduce the chances of success. This is a nerve-racking time, but the consequences of inaction are too high. Working together, America, Russia and China can halt Syria’s agony and the slide toward wider conflict. Mr. Obama’s decision might be the catalyst to get that done.”

I personally do not see Assad as this calculating figure, but time will tell which version of Assad is closer to the truth.

Of course arming the rebels is no slam-dunk. Even if Assad woke up tomorrow and decided he cannot win this war and would leave (which he will not), arming the rebels inevitably creates the risk that one day our own weapons will be used against us, regardless of how thoughtfully weapons are dispersed.

“As the United States and its Western allies move toward providing lethal aid to Syrian rebels, these secretive transfers give insight into an unregistered arms pipeline that is difficult to monitor or control. And while the system appears to succeed in moving arms across multiple borders and to select rebel groups, once inside Syria the flow branches out. Extremist fighters, some of them aligned with Al Qaeda, have the money to buy the newly arrived stock, and many rebels are willing to sell.”

Even if the arms go directly to the Supreme Military Council, there is no telling where they will end up after this conflict is over.

“For Russia — which has steadfastly supplied weapons and diplomatic cover to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — this black-market flow is a case of bitter blowback. Many of the weapons Moscow proudly sold to Libya beginning in the Soviet era are now being shipped into the hands of rebels seeking to unseat another Kremlin ally.”

The U.S. learned a similar lesson when arms and training given to Al-Qaeda in the 1970s to oppose Soviet interests backfired.

It is impossible to know where the weapons will ultimately end up–underpinning the ongoing debate of arming the Syrian opposition. Think of the Western world’s “best case scenario”–a legitimate Syrian opposition assumes power following Assad’s removal and attempts to setup a democratic Syria. There is no telling how long that democracy will last (often first attempts at democracy fail). These weapons could be stockpiled by a pro-Western power, only to be lost in a future military coup. The existence of these weapons poses the possibility that they will fall into enemy hands at some point in the future–especially as the conflict becomes a memory and international attention focuses elsewhere.

Still, steps are being taken to ensure the arms are channeled to legitimate branches of the Syrian opposition. If in the future these weapons fall into enemy hands, that will have to be dealt with in the future. Perhaps newer technology, such as GPS or even a remote “kill-switch”, are possible for bigger-ticket items sent to the opposition. If anybody knows anything about how donors keep tabs on military aid be sure to let us know in the comment section.

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Economic Outlook: The United States of Europe?

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/84/Supranational_European_Bodies.png/400px-Supranational_European_Bodies.png

The title of this post is a bit of a joke, even in the unlikely scenario that such a federation is established, I’m sure they would make it a point to make a name less similar to that of the USA. What is not a joke is the state of the European economy, whose unemployment rate and output gap makes America seem like the a model of economic efficiency. (It is impossible to find a single EU or Euro Zone output gap figure, but one can safely assume based on unemployment levels that it is significantly large).

French President Francois Hollande made strong, if not novel, points.

“The French proposal, which Hollande said he would submit to his eurozone partners, also calls for much deeper fiscal integration between the eurozone nations, with a common budget and the authority to issue debt. The government would also debate the main political and economic decisions to be taken by member states and launch a battle against tax fraud.”

“He acknowledged he could face resistance from Germany, Europe’s dominant power, which opposes mutualising debt among member states. Berlin is also reluctant to give the euro zone its own secretariat for fear of deepening division in the EU, between the 17 members of the single currency and the 10 others.

Non-euro Britain’s government already faces growing domestic pressure to hold a referendum on leaving the bloc.

Hollande said he wanted Britain to stay in the EU but added: “I can understand that others don’t want to join (the single currency). But they cannot stop the euro zone from advancing.”

Hollande said a future euro zone economic government would debate the main political and economic decisions to be taken by member states, harmonize national fiscal and welfare policies, and launch a battle against tax fraud.

He proposed bringing forward planned EU spending to combat record youth unemployment, pushing for an EU-wide transition to renewable energy sources, and envisaged “a budget capacity that would be granted to the euro zone along with the gradual possibility of raising debt”.

He also called for a 10-year public investment plan in the digital sector, the promised energy transition, public health and in big transport infrastructure projects.”

Indeed, these concepts are not new. There has always been doubt as to whether the Europe had the necessary preconditions for a strong currency union (based on the theory of optimal currency area). There is considerable economic interdependence, but differences in language and culture make labor less mobile (which is why some countries in the EU have unemployment rates above 25%, while others are high but more manageable).

The head of the Economics department at Fordham, Dominick Salvatore, (a man whom I greatly admire) wrote about the issue of having a currency union without fiscal coordination in the early 1990s. He was probably not the only one to identify this obvious flaw. European leaders thought that by creating the EU and Euro zone, that greater coordination would naturally occur, however this has largely not taken place (at least with respect to fiscal coordination).

The E.U. is at a cross-roads (it has been at it for some time). Britain will eventually have a referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU (a few high level officials have recently signaled they would vote to leave). The economic recovery in Europe has been non-existent. If a stronger European economic government make the Euro zone project more sustainable, it would be in the best interest of both the 17 Euro Zone countries and the 10 countries in the E.U. but without the Euro.

I used to be worried about a E.U. breakup, but I do not think such an outcome would be as painful as a Euro zone breakup. The E.U. was recently given the Nobel Prize, a symbolic move emphasizing the importance of the block of countries in promoting democracy and human rights globally. But if the E.U. wished to merely become a FTA or  common market, I do not see any of the countries drastically changing their political ideology. All of these countries still have a shared history in which peace and trade led to mutually beneficial outcomes, while war and isolation led to pain and suffering; allowing countries to leave the E.U. to sustain the Euro Zone would not change this. Indeed, I do not believe there is any foreseeable outcome that could change decades of hard learned lessons .

Economic integration would continue to exist between non Euro Zone and Euro Zone countries. The Euro Zone, with a more unified political and economic voice, would undoubtedly be a more meaningful partner with the U.S. in terms of global governance. The Euro Zone would become more effective in global security measures, with a strong unified military–in this sense having the Euro Zone move forward without all of the E.U. would help achieve many of the original goals of the E.U.

There is no question that a monetary union cannot be sustained without fiscal coordination. President Hollande was dead on when he said “I can understand that others don’t want to join (the single currency). But they cannot stop the euro zone from advancing.” Sometimes you have to cut off the limb to save the patient, and it seems like this might be the case with the Euro Zone. E.U countries not in the Euro Zone could wake-up tomorrow, decide to leave, and as long as economic ties remained very little would change. If the Euro Zone fell apart, there would be unprecedented losses as countries scrambled to put the pieces of their monetary policies back together.

If allowing countries to leave the E.U. is what it takes to make the Euro Zone sustainable, then this option has to be explored. When has forcing someone to stay, when popular consensus is to go, ever led to a sustainable union? If countries want to go, they should be allowed to go, so that those who remain can move forward.

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