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.