Friday 24 August 2012

And the gold goes to…Western procrastination

Michael Young

Ehud Barak and Leon Panetta met for talks in Israel recently that included Iran. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.
It’s Summer 2012, the Games of the XXX Olympiad are finally upon us after an agonising seven year wait, and it’s finally official…the House of Lords is NOT going to be reformed. But there is still one thing that keeps lingering on, something that isn’t so clear cut. What are we going to do about Iran?
The most recent of the P5+1 (all five UN Security Council members plus Germany) talks with Iran have been a step in the right direction, despite the fact that little progress has been made. Iran has seemed more willing than ever before to sit down at the negotiating table with the same powers that have been seeking to cripple the Ahmadinejad regime – a sign that sanctions may be starting to bite, and that domestic opinion could well be turning against the government’s nuclear ambitions. In fact, a recent poll conducted by state media suggests that 60% of Iranians may be in favour of the country ending its Uranium enrichment programme which is rapidly approaching 20%, or ‘weapons grade’. Yet any attempt at Iranian denuclearisation by either side all too often seems half-hearted.
What makes the situation unclear at this point is the fate of the incumbent US administration come the November election. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney clearly has the peaceful, sensible and diplomatic intentions that you would expect of a Republican nominee, namely bombing Iran into submission if it comes to it. His recent first test of Middle Eastern diplomacy even got off to a flying start when he labelled Jerusalem the capital of Israel. However Democrat nominee Barack Obama has showed pragmatism and rationality throughout the crisis in his initial four year term – opting to stand back, silently observe and hold back from making any crucial speech on the issue. His approach is simply logical - let’s not commit the US to a conflict which could cost re-election - there’s no harm in waiting until after November 6th. Indeed, the outcome of the recent meeting between top-level US and Israeli officials, including US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, suggests that the US may be willing to attack Iran unilaterally, or assist Israel in attacking Iran, but only when ‘the time is right’, meaning not until next year at the very earliest
This just adds to the frustration for Israeli PM Netanyahu, who is rapidly running out of options. As much as it seems that the PM would like to take military action tomorrow, he knows there is little support both at home and abroad on a premise that lacks concrete evidence and is based on what is, in reality, nothing other than a hunch. He has maintained all along that economic sanctions would have next to no impact against the Iranian regime and would allow Tehran to continue with its nuclear programme with little hindrance. This presumption is starting to become even clearer with the news this week that Standard Chartered has been secretly enabling Iran to continue making financial transactions despite the economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the US. 
The US officials that visited Israel recently would have been begging the government in Tel Aviv not to make any moves over the next couple of months. Symptoms of conflict in the Middle East are the last thing Obama wants to be diagnosing at the moment as he starts thinking about the campaign trail ahead – a healthy state of affairs in the region is vital. As Romney looks increasingly likely to be the one sitting in the Oval Office next year, a free podium to criticise the current President over his handling of such a crisis would only bolster the Republican’s campaign prospects.
The Syrian crisis is clearly the biggest issue in the Middle East at the moment, and that resonates in the World media. Perhaps the West is waiting for things to settle down there before it has to devote attention back to Iran, although it must be remembered that whatever the US and UK eventually decide to do in Syria (with or without the support of Russia and China) will have a large bearing on future bargaining power with Iran. Iran has recently pledged its support to Bashar al-Assad in the crisis there, offering solidarity with the Syrian President, and has also sought to frame the conflict in the wider picture of the US and the West yet again squaring up to a small Middle Eastern state.
The Olympic Games always bring a welcome breather to international relations. Whilst the UK government sticks to its on-going criticism of the current administration, Iranians are winning gold on the world stage just a few miles from Westminster. Come next month and the political arena will be back to normal – yet it’s about as safe a bet as Usain Bolt dominating the 100m Final that the nuclear question will still remain unresolved in the coming months.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

The Myth of the Mad Dictator

William Smith

AFP/Getty Images
After sixteen months of popular revolt, with its grip on power weakening by the day, the Syrian government stands accused not only of carrying out barbaric atrocities against its own people, but also of committing a series of strategic blunders that are hastening its demise. Syria’s downing of a Turkish fighter jet last month, and its recent threats to use chemical weapons in the event of foreign intervention, were widely viewed as significant ‘own-goals’ that have have served only to increase the regime’s international isolation. With the situation on the ground spiralling out of control, the Saudi news outlet al-Arabiyya has decried the “madness and hysteria” of the embattled regime, with prominent columnist Amir Taheri suggesting that president Bashar al-Asad himself is “losing contact with reality and becoming a “prisoner in a cobweb of fantasies”. 

It is an argument that has been made often enough. Throughout the Syrian uprising, Western commentators have tended to view the country’s spiralling violence, and the gradual evisceration of the regime, as the direct result of Asad’s blunders. The detention and torture of a group of children in the town of Der’aa last March transformed a hitherto peaceful call for reform into a full-scale revolt, and the government’s uncompromising pursuit of a ‘security option’ has spawned an increasingly violent insurrection. Meanwhile, the regime’s willingness to shell densely populated civilian areas in full view of the world’s media, combined with its shrill denunciations of a ‘foreign conspiracy’, have simply reinforced its image as a mad and hysterical actor. As The Economist noted last November, it is actions such as these that suggest the Syrian leader is “intent on self-destruction”. 

Clearly the regime has made serious tactical mistakes. But how accurate is the portrayal of Asad as madman? The irrational, unstable despot has become something of an archetype in our understanding of autocratic regimes. From Shakespeare’s Richard II to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the narrative of the deposed leader is of a delusional despot whose downfall is hastened by his own egoism and hubris. The example of the former Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi is a case in point. Alternately caricatured in the West as a comic buffoon and a mad dog, Gaddafi was seen by many to pave the way for his own deposition through forty years of megalomania. Yet his grandiloquent and eccentric persona hid a more calculating and rational mind. The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, described the former dictator as “delusional” and “disconnected” from reality, but the story of the former army cadet’s rise to power and his forty year rule tell a quite different story.

It is perhaps much easier to think of a dictator who was overseen the deaths of thousands of his own people as a madman, than to countenance the idea that he might be behaving as a rational actor. But perhaps leaders such as Asad - like Gaddafi and others before him - are not only resolutely sane, but are cultivating and exploiting a reputation for madness as a tactic against their opponents. Machiavelli observed that it is “wise to sometimes pretend to be crazy”, and it is a ploy that has been used to good effect by more modern statesmen. Former US president Richard Nixon drew on his ‘madman theory’ as a means to scare his adversaries, and induce them to back down. In negotiations with their North Korean counterparts, US officials would intimate that Nixon was an unstable leader, prone to taking irrational decisions and resorting to disproportionate violence. As Avidit Acharya and Edoardo Grillo explain, incumbent elites may be incentivised to appear irrational, willing to pursue extreme levels of violence as a means of deterring potential opponents from engaging in armed opposition. The tactic can be effective both domestically and internationally. Just as domestic opponents may reason that the costs of armed conflict are too high, so too can foreign states be convinced that a military intervention against a violent and unstable regime is too dangerous. Bashar al-Asad’s own ‘madman theory’ was clearly attested to by his extraordinary use of doublespeak in declaring that only “crazy” leaders kill their own people.

In deploying his own ‘madman theory’, Bashar al-Asad can draw on a number of successful precedents for using extreme violence to quell domestic unrest. His own father, Hafez al-Asad, was widely seen as one of the shrewdest and most calculating figures in modern Middle Eastern politics, but he was also one of the most brutal. His merciless response to an armed uprising in the 1980s is perhaps the best evidence to Bashar that state violence can indeed be a succesful tactic. The sheer brutality of the regime’s response, and its willingness to kill thousands of people during its siege of Hama, served as an effective deterrent to further armed insurgency, and convinced the opposition Muslim Brotherhood to renounce violence and seek change via peaceful means. More recently, Asad can point to the example of Russia in Chechnya, and the Iran’s suppression of the 2009 ‘Green Revolution’. It is no surprise that the Syrian regime’s principal backers throughout the recent uprising have been Vladmir Putin and Ayatollah Khamenei. 

By contrast, Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s decision to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction programme and pursue detente with the West during the 2000s serves as a cautionary tale to Asad of the dangers of relinquishing one’s reputation as a dangerous despot. In the aftermath of the Anglo-American overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Libyan leader calculated that his regime’s survival was better served by an allegiance with the US and its allies, than by a coercive deterrent to invasion. In fact, his decision had the opposite effect, and made him more vulnerable to being overthrown. By caving to Western pressure and ridding himself of his chemical arsenal, Gaddafi lost both the physical means to stave off and overthrow, and his reputation as a dangerous and irrational actor, willing to resort to extreme violence to stay in power. Last year, Gaddafi may well have regretted his decision.

Having studied the two contrasting fates of his father and Muammar al-Gaddafi, Bashar al-Asad has evidently concluded that his only chance of survival rests in pursuing a security response. Unfortunatlely for him, his tactics have not met with the same success as his father’s did thirty years ago. Bolstered by modern media communications, outside logistical support and the inspiration of the Libyan civil war, Syria’s rebels have not been cowed into submission, but rather galvanised by each successive wave of government violence. Internationally, however, the Syrian regime has had more success, with Western states so far eschewing direct intervention in the conflict on the grounds that Syria is ‘not Libya’. In this regard, the regime’s thinly veiled threat to use chemical weapons in the event of a foreign attack acts as a significant deterrent among growing reports of indirect intervention in the country on the part of Western intelligence agencies.

But regardless of whether or not it ultimately succeeds, Asad’s tactics in response to the Syrian uprising can hardly be seen as madness. It is often argued that Asad could have avoided widespread, popular revolt if he had only followed through with his earlier promises of reform. Yet it seems that Asad understood the limits of reforming Syria’s deeply embedded structures of authoritarianism far better than optimistic foreign commentators. Asad will know that meaningful political reform, as opposed to the empty slogans he has made up until now, is impossible, almost by definition. broadening its social pact, the regime would undermine the narrow, praetorian support base that underpins its rule. As Clement Henry and Robert Springborg observed long before the current uprising began, the Syrian regime has always relied almost exclusively on coercion to remain in power, and has since its inception existed in a “potential state of war” with the society it rules. Now Asad has his war, and he will see it through to the end, as it is his only viable option to remain in power.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Syria: the new Cold War cauldron

Bhavin Vyas

Putin and Assad: The importance of Syria to Russia. Sergei Chirikov/AP/File
When Barack Obama came to office in 2008, he laid out a post-Bush post-interventionist strategy. The costly wars of Afghanistan and Iraq would be no more. Rather than confrontation and aggression, negotiations and collaborations would be the emphasis of foreign policy. Intelligence services and covert operations would be central. In keeping with such imperatives, the United States extended their arms to Medvedev’s Russia to ‘reset’ their relationship. However, the Syrian crisis has brought to head Obama’s doctrine and Putin’s realpolitik.
The strategy of the Obama doctrine – covert by nature, engaging and collaborative in public – found its cauldron in Syria and the Arab Spring. The populist nature of the Arab Spring has allowed the US to ride on the wave of ideas such as ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ that it regularly espouses while abandoning the very leaders that they backed before the uprising. 
The Syrian-Russian relationship
In Syria, the US was a strong supporter of Syrian National Council (SNC), as it was of the Libyan National Transitional Council. As it became obvious in Libya that Gaddafi could no longer be backed, the US supported NATO action to back a unified opposition group. In doing so, it bypassed Russian resistance for any intervention in the Libyan crisis. The SNC received such backing before its legitimacy faded. The difference between Syria and Libya lies as much in the strength of the Assad regime as it does in its support from Russia.
Syria is important to Russia for several reasons. It is Moscow’s major cultural, economic and strategic ally in the Middle East. Tartus is the only military base outside the old Soviet Union, and provides an important fuelling port that forgoes the Black Sea and the NATO member, Turkey. There is a long-standing arms deal between Moscow and Damascus, and Syria has a large stockpile of Soviet weapons. 
The Syrian regime also provides a power balance through Iran and Hezbollah to the US-Israel relationship. Equally, the regime – like many of the dictatorships in the Middle East – guarantees a perceived secular government. Should the Assad regime fall, given their own problems with the Muslim population in the North Caucasus, the Russians would be worried by a possible Islamist extremism coming to power in Damascus. Crucially, Putin’s return has threatened to bring the Arab Spring to Russia. Thousands took to the streets to protest Putin’s return to power. The season of activism and mass protest has so far claimed leaders that were seen as untouchable. Putin may feel worried about his own fate.
Obama doctrine and covert operations
The Obama Doctrine has thus far wielded mixed results. The covert operations have brought the deaths of Osama Bin Laden, paved the way for Gaddafi’s death and have also claimed top militant commanders in Pakistan and Yemen. The US carries out one drone attack a day in Yemen and has carried out over 334 drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004, such has become its reliance on this strategy. Black ops warfare has become the signature strategy of the Obama administration. 

There have been strong public protests against US drone attacks in Pakistan. SS Mirza/AFP/Getty.
However, the drone attacks in Pakistan have been met with wild public outcry. The issue of drone attacks came to loggerheads through the NATO supply routes into Afghanistan. The Pakistani government closed the supply routes, demanding an apology from the US for civilian casualties caused by drone attacks. Right-wing Pakistani groups threatened to organise violent protests if the parliament opened the routes, and the government demanded higher tariffs on NATO equipment passing through the Pakistan border. A US apology was promptly followed by reopening of the supply routes and protests in the streets of Pakistan. 
In Syria, there is evidence to suggest that the CIA has been coordinating and assisting Saudi Arabia and Qatar in providing logistical and financial support to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This can be seen in the fighting development and intelligence of the FSA, perhaps culminating in the bomb attacks that killed four of Assad’s closest allies. 
The struggle for power
The situation in Syria seems to be reaching a climax. Moscow has been unmoved thus far, keen to support their last remaining ally in the region. This has been evident in their veto of the latest Security Council resolution. While the UK attempted to push for a resolution under chapter 7, giving the Assad regime a time limit to adopt the Annan peace plan or otherwise face further sanctions, Russia was resistant to it. Russia was resistant to Western hegemony, of the biased wording in the resolution that would pressure only the regime and leave open the possibility of intervention. They know that sanctions will only serve to weaken the regime.
It is difficult to predict how the Syrian crisis will unfold. Very few would have expected the killing of senior security leaders. However, what seems certain is that Russia will be very reluctant to forego the Assad regime despite the massacres, the violence or the ever growing instability. It is a practical strategic ally. What NATO’s success in Libya also showed was Russia’s reluctance to allow Western powers to bypass them to remove despotic world leaders that served as allies. In the public rhetoric of non-intervention, Russia finds solace in keeping the status quo.
Meanwhile, what the Arab Spring has shown is that the Obama doctrine is pragmatic. It has ridden on the wave of populist movement in the Arab world, knowing that opposing it could damage their relations. Unlike Russia, US foreign policy has rested on the vestiges of human rights and democratic freedom. The Arab Spring has allowed it this space. In Syria, it has both publically backed the major opposition figures as well as pragmatically and covertly facilitating the main opposition on the ground. 
The Cold War was a clash of opposing philosophies. The post-Cold War era has been replaced by a different power politics. While the US and the Obama doctrine have pragmatically moulded its foreign policy, Russia has kept to its realpolitik in order to retain power and position in the region. Syria has unfortunately been the cauldron.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood: Why the West must engage

Ross Gillam

Hilary Clinton’s meeting with Egypt’s new President Mohamed Morsi is an encouraging sign, but the West needs to continue such dialogue. Brendan Smialowski/AFP – The Guardian.  
Despite claiming to support democracy and human rights, the West was a close ally of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The rationale, at least internally between Western policy makers, was that it was best to support Mubarak and his regime as it ensured stability and acted as a bulwark against those who posed a potential threat to the status quo and the West’s long held influence the Arab world’s most populous country. One group in particular this policy was supposed to inhibit from gaining greater influence was the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, not only does the victory of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate in the recent presidential elections, mark a significant point in history, it also requires the West to reassess and alter its foreign policy for Egypt.
For too long, the West had claimed to support democracy across the Arab world, whilst simultaneously supporting and shoring-up corrupt and dictatorial rulers - it is important to recognise that support can be given through passivity, which is what the West largely employed towards the Middle East's strongmen, whilst claiming on the other hand to support pluralistic politics. Now that the Muslim Brotherhood has established itself in Egyptian politics through democratic means, the West finds itself in a position where the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ seems entirely apt. However, despite the cultural, historical and political differences between the West and the Muslim Brotherhood, the West must support President Morsi if the West’s democracy promotion is ever to be taken seriously.
Furthermore, Egypt’s future will have a significant impact for the region and could redefine geopolitical lines; this will pose numerous challenges, threats and opportunities for the West. Therefore, as former Prime Minister Tony Blair recently wrote when commenting on the Arab Spring, “We have to recognise our interests are dramatically engaged and respond accordingly.” Whilst being mindful and sensitive to the fact change has been brought about from within and without wanting to meddle in their affairs, this is not a time for the West to disengage from Egypt whilst it’s future, and that of the Middle East, unfolds.
The new face of Egyptian politics: President Mohamed Morsi during his first televised speech. EPA – The Guardian
With Morsi becoming President, some in the West, as well as the Middle East, remain fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some simply see the Brotherhood as an Islamist organisation looking to foster a conservative religious culture and society by implementing religious laws, despite the fact Morsi has presented himself as a moderate and a president seeking to represent all religious groups and ssections of society. Despite such scepticism, the Muslim Brotherhood must be given an opportunity to show that it is capable of running a Government and delivering what Egypt and its people need. This is extremely important for both the West and the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s an opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to show those that have historically been fearful of them, that they can be trusted and act maturely. Should they be able to do this, it could put an end to the negative perception that they are simply religious fanatics - a label that has seen many Brotherhood figures imprisoned, politically exiled or even worse, tortured throughout the organisation’s history. For the West, it is an opportunity to show that they really do support democracy, even if this means a party or group coming to power that may have different cultural and political dynamics - a double standard that has frequently undermined the West’s democracy promotion credibility over recent decades, particularly post-9/11. 
In order to support Egypt’s democratic transition as policymakers and politicians should, there are several measures the UK should take.         
Firstly, David Cameron should visit the newly elected Morsi in Egypt to show the UK's support. It was positive to see Hilary Clinton's recent visit and meeting with Morsi, but the West needs to continue such dialogue in order to build trust and understanding. David Cameron visited Tahrir Square in February 2011 shortly after the fall of Mubarak, now he needs to return to show his support for his successor and the democratic transition that has been set in motion. 
More precisely, the UK needs to support Egypt's politicians and society establish a true democracy. Democracy is about more than the ballot box; democracy requires a whole host of other freedoms such as a free press, human rights and the ability to hold incumbent politicians to account properly and transparently. Whilst the UK should not patronize Egyptians, the UK should still guide and support the development of the wider meaning of democracy. 
The army's dominant position in society and politics also needs to be addressed, but there is limited scope for external actors to influence this key issue. The West needs to support Morsi and politicians as they take on the military. For instance, when Morsi ordered parliament to reconvene after it had been dissolved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), this is the sort of action that needs to be supported. The West should support any calls for the military to return to their barracks and to leave the political sphere. In reality however, this is a battle that has to be led from within Egypt.
The West can also support Egypt's development economically. However, until Egypt's negotiators strike a deal with the IMF for a much needed loan, foreign investors will continue to be put off. To encourage a deal, the UK could source potential investors to spur Egypt into agreeing a IMF loan. This could act as a catalyst for much needed private investment, as the public sector alone will struggle to create the jobs and economic growth needed to appease Egypt’s revolutionaries. Morsi also needs to be encouraged to present himself and the Muslim Brotherhood as pro-business and to plot a clear path for economic development, as current political and economic uncertainty is equally putting off potential investors and causing foreign capital to take flight.
Ultimately Egyptians must continue to shape their own destiny as they have done since thousands took to the streets in public protest at the beginning of 2011. However, the West still has an important role to play, with failure to engage being detrimental to the interests of both Egyptians and the West.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Israel loves Iran (or does it?)

Michael Young

Talks between Iran and P5+1. Photo: Gettyimages.
The people of Israel are rightly becoming increasingly anxious. What lies in store for their country is far from certain – one week the headlines are that Tel Aviv is planning an imminent strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, the next week Iran has announced that it is prepared to enter into negotiations (which is normally followed by Israel playing down the suggestion that war is on the cards). As I stated in my previous article on the issue of the nuclear question, there are clearly many in the Israeli government that believe time is running out to halt the Iranian nuclear programme, and that a strike should be soon, regardless of the consequences. 
One group of Israelis, recognising this, have decided to act. The recently launched ‘Israel loves Iran’ campaign reflects the worry and uncertainty amongst ordinary citizens. It has gained momentum fast – their most recent video acquired over half a million views on YouTube within about 10 days. The message behind the campaign is powerful and all too often forgotten in war –‘we don’t even know you’. It is, of course, easier to judge opinion in Israel than in Iran, but it is certainly hard to see many Israelis supporting war, knowing that the consequences could easily be rockets from Iranian terrorist organisations in Palestine being directed towards them in response.  Whether or not the campaign becomes internationally renowned and effective may determine whether social networking could be used in this way to prevent war in the future.  
Whilst Iran may be in the later stages of Uranium enrichment, there IS still time to work with the regime and come to some sort of agreement. Sanctions are starting to bite and Iran is feeling the pressure – there are certainly signs that diplomacy could be working.
According to Reuters, A new round of talks are to be held in Turkey in April between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1). It’s been over a year now since the last of such talks in January 2011 broke down, and hopefully this spring will see some progress over the nuclear issue and not an Israeli airstrike as previously suggested by Leon Panetta. The fact remains that Iran does not currently possess nuclear weapons, and if Israel did strike then any weapons programme would be nothing other than delayed, simultaneously giving Iran a more conventional reason to detest the state other than anti-Zionism. Indeed, Iran would have more reason to pursue a weapon than ever before, making future confrontation highly likely. If talks are to happen, they have to happen soon – it was recently reported that later this year may see a conference in Helsinki designed to end the dispute diplomatically and perhaps even move towards a ban of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, but the fact that it is scheduled for December could be too little too late.
However, it has been well documented that Israel would have significant difficulty in implementing the attack successfully anyway, which could be a reason as to why it seems to have been recently relying on Mossad-led covert action instead. Iran’s nuclear programme is dispersed throughout the country at various underground sites – Fordo, for example, is 295 feet underground, and Israel simply do not possess the technology to destroy it. It would have to rely on a significant amount of help and firepower from the United States in order to annihilate Iran’s nuclear programme.
The UK is still waiting for sanctions to take full effect before it takes any further action, and the impact of sanctions will not be clear until either July, when they are comprehensively implemented, or if Iran gives in and concedes economic defeat before then, returning to the negotiating table. Yet with the ‘BRICS’ (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) recently suggesting that they are certainly not bound by sanctions against Iran, it is hard to see Iran having a severe problem shifting their oil in the immediate future. According to the FCO, Britain wants to restore good relations with Iran at some point, but not until the nuclear question has been solved. It has even set up a new website recently called ‘UK for Iranians’ with the objective of stimulating dialogue between the Iranian people and the UK to make up for the lack of an embassy in Tehran.
Any resolve on the issue is still far from imminent. Whilst the P5+1 states will go into any possible talks next month with only one objective – to get Iran to dismantle its nuclear programme – Iran might see this as an opportunity to gain some significant concessions in return. Tehran isn’t going to give up without a fight, especially as the West has dithered for some time now, allowing the programme to develop into an extensive, costly web of operations scattered throughout the country. Maybe the message that ‘Israel loves Iran’ will fully reach the Iranian people and the regime will be pressured to change course. Optimistic, to say the least.